Book Reviews

The Goddess with the Clay Feet

Rowling in The Casual Vacancy

“Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner. He had endured a thumping headache for most of the weekend and was struggling to make a deadline for a local newspaper”

…. This is how J.K. Rowling starts her latest book The Casual Vacancy. A somber novel after all the seven Harry Potter books and the eight films on the series. For a billion readers, chiefly children J.K. Rowling is a household goddess. 

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults in which Thomas Hardy may look like P.G. Woodhouse. The world’s favourite children’s author wrote this dark comedy with occasional elements of fun interspersed with the theme of suicide, cruel activities and even online pornography described in gynaecological detail. It may appear shocking to the children although they have grown up by this time with the Harry Potter series. It is true that Rowling has the liberty not to continue to write stories to show herself as the baby sitter for engaging the attention of the children only. 

The fictional West County village Pagfold is a rural surrounding where Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties. It is a veritable pageantry of fighting and fighting – rich fighting out the poor, teenagers fighting out their parents, wives fighting out their husbands and teachers fighting  out their students. Obama fighting election with Romney may be at the backdrop. Otherwise why the question is so prominent - “Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?” There is an orgy of swearing, sex and vitriol which Rowling could not use in her Potter series and as a writer she seems to have taken revenge against the readers who put certain restraints on her. It is walking on the hard ground after so much confinement to the magic circle of books. Rowling breaks the long drawn spell with this sombre book of dark comedy. 

Among the families that Rowling describes, there are Howard Mollison, a Right wing delicatessen owner, Shirley his egotistic wife, the parish councilor and her bullied self- harming daughter. Colin’s ailment is quite serious as he is under the misconception that he has sexually abused students. Adopted son is also a theme of the novel. The special focus in the book is on the raucously neglected children. 

In Howard Mollison's view, Pagford shone with a kind of moral radiance. For him, the town was an ideal, a way of being; a micro-civilisation that stood firmly against national decline. At the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani allows that the “novel contains moments of genuine drama and flashes here and there of humor.  Casual Vacancy stirs up whatever is the opposite of the emotions invoked. Rowling depicts the picture of life where dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity. The novel contains moments of genuine drama and flashes here and there of humor. ” She then concludes: “There is no magic in this book.   It’s as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling’s miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two, - never mind three-dimensional tale. Rowling does not seem to be sympathetic with her characters that turn from bad to worse. But she captures the humanity in everyone. 

What is mostly missing in The Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s wit with which she sees through the human folly.The comic approach is missing and in its place a serious Rowling surfaces nearly all over this novel of 500 pages. The plot of the novel is a million miles from Harry Potter’s one man mission to save the wizard world. There are various political agendas in this book and they are mostly related to the desire for doing social welfare. The novel may even be described as a ‘relentless socialist manifesto’. Rowling’s greatness as a novelist however does not lie in the presentation of social and political issues. Rather it is found in her portrayal of the lovable and despicable characters, funny and yet tragic. 

The Pagfordians are awfully human. We find candid description of Samantha Mollieson’s jealousy over the sympathy accorded to Barry Fairbrother’s widow. Rowling hits hard on the nagging thoughts of hypocrisy. At the same time we find a character like Vernon Dursley whose hideous rage and stupidity make him entertaining. The same approach makes the wife beater and criminal Simon Price ludicrous. Krystal Weedon, the daughter of Junkie prozzie is known to the readers more for her mannerisms and stereotype dialogues. 

It is a muggle world that Rowling depicts in The Casual Vacancy where the Potter characters are rarely superimposed. No trace or sign of the Hogwarts crew can be found in Pagford. The people in this novel have vocation and their actions are motivated by selfishness. Many now engage themselves in the wild gossip that this book is probably written by the authoress for herself rather than for the readers. The days of magic are gone, the magic wand is broken and we feel like Shakespeare’s Prospero, that our life is rounded with a sleep and not with an ‘as you like it’ sort of  dream for change. 


More by :  Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

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