Like a rebellious teenager, I have a problem reading the books everyone is talking about at a certain point in time. Bestsellers, books of the month… all of this make me want to NOT read the book right then. It’s only when the dust has settled, so to speak, that I rear my ostrich head out of its little hole and trot off to get the book.
So it happened that I came to Rowling’s much publicized first non-Harry Potter book a year after it was published. I have been a great admirer of Rowling’s writing, ever since I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For me reading her as an adult, she brought back the charm and innocence of a child’s world, full of magic and endless possibilities. She was the perfect storyteller in that series—even if individual books in it seemed uneven sometimes. She could spin out her story perfectly, knew how to get her readers hooked and keep them wanting more. So in some ways I was reluctant to read her first book for adults, after the feast that had been the Potter series, in the fear of being let down.
I needn’t have worried. The Casual Vacancy had me hooked from page 1. Set in a little town in England called Pagford, the death of Barry Fairbrother plunges the small population into a morass of moral issues. Barry was on the council of town affairs. He, and a few of others, stood for a more inclusive Pagford. With him gone, social hypocrisies are ripped open. Children turn on their parents, employers on employees, wives on their husbands.
I will not go into the details of the story, instead I will write about what impressions stayed with me when I read this. There is an overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss underlining the entire novel. There is the sorrow of bereavement—of a wife, the children, friends and students. But there is also sorrow, anger and helplessness at the changes the world is foisting on this little town. Some who live here want to cling to the old ways, to the charm of cobbled streets and invitations to the manor house. But the dark underbelly—of junkies, rapists, teenage delinquents, cannot be brushed away any more. Like in her previous books, Rowling does not shy away in presenting the dark side. Here, without the responsibilities that are invariably the lot of writers for children, she is brutal as she shows the fissures in marriages and in families. A particular scene, where an abusive father turns on his family, while they wait with bated breath for the blows to fall on them—physical and spoken—is gut wrenching.
There was one more aspect of the novel that stuck with me—the agency and space she gives her teenage protagonists. They are perhaps the best drawn characters in the book. The politics of gender and class that play out in the school corridors is startling, and her handling of it is masterful. Teen rebellion—in the form of casual sex, physical abuse, cyber bullying, hacking all meld together to show the mind of a generation that is at war with itself and its elders.
The book ends with another death—a horrible accident this time. But there is also resolution and a note of hope. At over 500 pages, it is a long time to spend with one cast of characters, but Rowling makes the reader’s work easy by keeping the pace quick, and the characters compelling. It’s not a perfect novel. Some of her characters appear cardboardish and typical. And sometimes it is as if she is taking some sort of perverse pleasure in having all manner of tragedies fall on this one town. Yet, within a limited physical canvas she creates a world that encompasses enormous issues that beset us all.
The Casual Vacancy is a book that is unlikely to leave the reader unaffected. A Facebook post on it while I read it garnered many comments. Some loved it, others hated it. No one said it left them cold. For a read that will have you thinking and keep your emotions running high, this is definitely the book to turn to.
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