books · Fiction · reading

January Week #4: The Casual Vacancy

Day 168 - October 28, 2012
Day 168 – October 28, 2012 (Photo credit: Sonia Belviso)

Having spontaneously traveled home today, I am now happily installed in the warmth of my bed with good home food in my belly and the dourness I suffered this week, is gone for now.

This week I read The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling‘s new book, significant because it marked her departure from her Harry Potter world.

Personally, I was waiting a long while for this. The spectacular wizarding world that she created was so indisputably absorbing for children and grown-ups alike, so filled with parallels from the real life, lessons involving good and evil and doing the right thing and being strong, that it felt like she could never, ever do anything else with her career to top that. And I don’t think she can! Because nothing she does from now on will ever compare to what she did with Harry. But also, we will never be able to stop comparing.

However, I do not want her, like many other people, to go back and revisit that world. I don’t want her to disturb Harry anymore. I want the Harry Potter world to be frozen at its happy ending, tugging your heart whenever you think of it but making you believe that all good things come to an end and that is how it should be because nothing is good in excess. And further writings about Harry Potter can end up being a killjoy.

That being said, The Casual Vacancy was as different from the Harry Potters as could possibly be. The books smelt the same, yes (and let me tell you this, the smell coming from Harry Potter books is one of my favourite smells in the world) and when you started reading you could identify J.K. Rowling’s distinct style in the dark humor she adopted in this book. But in its content and in the direction of its storyline, this book was different, different.

The synopsis may appear a little boring: a member of the Parish council in a small fictitious town of Pagford, dies suddenly. There is no mystery in the manner of his death; he suffers an aneurysm. But his death creates a casual vacancy on the council, which is where our story begins.

The book is split in seven parts (yes, we know why J.K. Rowling loves this number). Part one establishes all the major players of the story; shows you glimpses of their dysfunctional lives, the things that they love and hate, the people they love and hate and the things that they are anticipating, with the formation of this casual vacancy.

When I finished Part I, my major observation was that I did not particularly like any of the characters. There were kids, yes. Lots of kids: Fats, with his complex philosophies involving ‘authenticity’ and ‘in authenticity’ became my immediate least favourite but there is a dark secret in his family life. Andrew is his best friend,the kid whose dad terrorizes the family at home leading to the breeding of a deep sense of hatred mingled with a desire to pay back inside him. There is Sukhvinder, the Sikh girl who is piteously and continuously bullied by Fats and callled a number of derogatory terms. There is Krystal, daughter of a junkie, neglected and traumatized but she has a good heart, despite her circumstantially developed habits of cursing, smoking and acting cool.

Pagford district involves within its jurisdiction, a part known as the Fields, which requires its regular funding and special attention. Krystal is one example of the kind of people who come from the Fields but Barry Fairbrother, the Councillor who died and is revealed to be exemplary in all aspects, remembered fondly by the people who counted themselves as his friends, is another. The presence of the Fields has split the citizens of Pagford into two and with Barry’s death, his opponents wish to fill the spot with somebody anti-Fields, who can take this region off their hands for good.

Most characters in this book are shown to take one side or the other regarding this view, but there are many who are focused on other personal problems. In their own ways, each of them contribute to the story which reaches a culmination through the presence of a crossroad of sorts, in the ending which, of course, I will not reveal.

One of the things that struck me most about this book, was the life of Krystal’s three and a half year old brother Robbie. Neglected, mistreated, exposed to a variety of lewd, unsuitable acts and words a child should never know exist, Robbie exists in a world of pain and suffering which he interprets through fear, through stunted development and a tendency to cling to his elder sister Krystal, who loves him in her own way but is not suitable to take care of her. Another thing that struck me, was the extent of self-loathing suffered by Sukhvinder, something I can partially empathize with and understand as being possible in this world.

In the end of the book, I was left with a sense of horror, with a feeling that I, like Robbie, had been exposed to a raw, hurting wound. One of the worse things was that everything in this book exists in our world and life is not a fairytale. Harry Potter was. But this isn’t.

So here is the warning. If you can get under the skin of these characters like I did, you wouldn’t be left with a happy, satisfied feeling in the end. Lord Voldemort was a tangible monster who died but the monsters in this book are dark, masked and bloody real.

And all the characters in this book come out vividly, you might like or admire a few of them as you read, but you will see the others in all of their flawed glory, you will understand them in and out and you will probably hate many of them. You will see them through their own eyes and through the eyes of those around them and appreciate the complexity of human relationships.

At the heart of this book is a political drama centered around people who seem very believable (but believable characters have always been a specialty with Rowling…I am sorry I can’t help comparing!).

I respect J.K. Rowling all the more for having written something so tragic, moving, hurting, evil, horrifying and truthfully from the heart. And when she says,

“I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I’m proud of it, and that counts for me.”

 “I think it’s braver to do it like this. And, to an extent, you know what? The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that. So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”


I will just say that I do respect her and I don’t want her to go back to wizards, no. I want more   striking, shocking, different books from her!


4 thoughts on “January Week #4: The Casual Vacancy

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