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The Casual Vacancy: A book review

November 17, 2012


Joanne Kathleen Rowling’s latest work The Casual Vacancy was, as I am sure everyone knows, heavily publicised with a somewhat negative media hype surrounding the book. Critics and even fans questioned her abilities to drastically change her genres from a children’s fantasy book series to more adult themes. However, her new publication marked the return of the “Queen” Rowling (an affectionate name her fans use for her) with a vengeance.

The Casual Vacancy reminds one of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life as both books are quite an in-depth study of small provincial towns in England. However, there are little or no similarities between Rowling’s and Eliot’s novels, apart from the fact that both are about a small provincial town in England.

Rowling’s novel is entirely different from Eliot’s because of its bold descriptions of themes like race, poverty, class, politics, drugs, prostitution and rape. When you read the book, you cannot help but realise the meaning behind all the criticisms levelled at Rowling for switching to a completely different genre. In fact, you realise the amount of pressure on Rowling over The Casual Vacancy when you read it because in terms of content and narrative technique, it is a rather difficult book to write.

The Casual Vacancy is divided into seven parts (seven must be her lucky number) of varying lengths. Each part begins with a quote from Charles Arnold-Baker’s book Local Council Administration and each quote, aptly-placed, serves as a foreshadowing of what is to come in each part.

Unlike the Harry Potter series, where Rowling told the story from a single character’s perspective, The Casual Vacancy is written from the perspectives of many different characters, giving us an insight into almost all of the main characters’ inner minds. One would think that handling so many perspectives would affect Rowling’s narrative. But no, she may switch between character point-of-views in quick succession within a single chapter and even within a page but in no way does it impair the quality of her prose and most importantly the flow of her storytelling. In fact, it is surprising to note how she manages multiple character point-of-views so skillfully in The Casual Vacancy.

Despite switching genres, there has been no reduction in Rowling’s abilities to create memorable characters, which stay with you even after you have flipped over the last page. Just like the numerous memorable characters she created in Harry Potter, she has created similar characters in The Casual Vacancy, such as Krystal Weedon and Sukhvinder Jawanda.

Krystal Weedon is an inhabitant of the Fields, the housing estate that many of the parishioners of Pagford are hell-bent upon removing from the Pagford Parish and transfer its administrative duties to the neighbouring town, Yarvil. Therefore, Krystal Weedon becomes like a poster child for those parish councilors who wanted Fields to remain a part of Pagford, especially for the catalyst of The Casual Vacancy, Barry Fairbrother. She was as close to him as one can possibly get to one’s mentor. Fairbrother presented her to the residents of Pagford as the next person hailing from Fields to achieve success in life and be an important, useful member of society. The first person to do this was of course, Barry Fairbrother himself.

However, despite Fairbrother having Krystal’s best interests at heart, her family life and her own behaviour is a major factor that hinders her advance through Pagford’s social life. Despite the language that she uses and her behaviour, most of her actions signify that she genuinely cares about some of the people in her life, especially Fairbrother and her little brother Robbie. That is one of her redeeming qualities. It shows how she is like every other girl her age. The only difference is that her upbringing, which was far from normal, became a deciding factor in her personality as a young girl in her late teens. Not to mention that her upbringing was also what separated her from other girls of her age group in Pagford.

Then there is Sukhvinder Jawanda, the odd one out from her family of highly educated, straight-A achievers. She suffers from dyslexia and to her parents, especially her mother; she appears outwardly stupid and clumsy. Along with that, she belongs to the only Sikh family in the novel. As is common knowledge, the Sikh religion forbids the cutting of hair and many Sikh women nowadays do not cut or remove their hair at all. You could Google Balpreet Kaur and you will probably understand Sukhvinder Jawanda’s character a lot more. Unlike Kaur, Sukhvinder has little or no moral support from her family who cannot or do not understand her learning disabilities. To top it all, she suffers from low self-esteem and does not know how to deal with the bullying she experiences at the hands of her classmate, Fats Wall. The bullying is directed at the fact that Sukhvinder is unlike other girls as she has facial hair which she, presumably being a practicing Sikh cannot remove as it is against her religion. It is either that or the fact that she feels so cut off from her family, who don’t exactly come across as practicing Sikhs in the first place, that she cannot attempt to remove her facial hair.

The Casual Vacancy definitely shows that “Queen” J.K. Rowling is here to stay. Her characters, as always, are realistic enough for the readers to be able to relate to their various aspects. She throws out subtle hints throughout the narrative which then all join up together towards the end. I am sure her readers would be very happy to see the familiar writing style of unravelling numerous threads throughout the novel and then tying them all up together at the end that we enjoyed in Harry Potter. If you are a die-hard Rowling fan, or have enjoyed reading her work before, then I suggest you don’t miss out on The Casual Vacancy.

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