Published in Daily Times / 20 Oct 2012
Author: J.K Rowling
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title: What Happens in Pagford
Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy
And because this is not a whodunit doling out cocktails of conspiracy at the door, there will be no big reveal at the end. J.K. Rowling’s latest book — ‘The Casual Vacancy’, uses the demise of one Barry Fairbrother to pry into the soul of a quaint looking town called Pagford.
The battling citizens loom in view, caught in a stormy sea of addiction, abject poverty, class divide, domestic abuse, molestation, moral deviance, apathy and social injustice. Fans still under the spell woven by heroic wizards and witches might be ill prepared for the culture shock that awaits them beyond the gates. The reigning queen of fantasy returns to the world of fiction tilling an arid field for inspiration. Her new stomping grounds are more familiar, if less idyllic.
Racial slurs are hurled back and forth. Relationships crumble. And biases run deep.
The story maintains a steady pace jogging by the morose scenery taking its three-act circus along with it through the dark and twisted tunnel but without the proverbial ‘light at the end’. Prejudices are not just limited to the Sikh family found at the receiving end of the ‘Paki’ slur. They also extend to Fields residents caught in a crass spider web of crime and passion. To one resident ‘Pagford shone with a moral radiance’; and the estate of Fields ‘was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.’ Both sides of the picture get screen time. These excursions probe the depth of human emotion and the frail bonds that bind them together in a joint inferno of misery.
Those waiting with bated breath for the harsh lighting to dissolve into something softer, less intrusive are carried aloft built-in tragic currents of adolescent angst and mediocre minds. Barry as member of the Parish Council and a champion of underdogs serves as true North for the not so thriving community. His untimely exit resets the course taken by the Parish of Pagford already on the warpath with the city of Yarvil.
The void left by his demise opens up a position and a chance to pawn off Fields, an unwanted settlement, home to young Krystal Weedon with a junkie mother in tow. Standing in the midst of all this are rattled residents haunted by the very slanderous ‘Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’, a modern day menace safely ensconced in cyberspace that puts their political ambitions in jeopardy. Being with these characters is exhausting. One walks away with relief instead of the usual regret. This morbid portrait balances its multi-story arc on a sound platform from where it can stun society and create a stir.
The central storyline is devoted to the spectacle surrounding the election. Rowling delivers blistering attacks on society before circling back to the island of crushed dreams. The outlines might give off an exciting aura but the Pagford chronicles come in just one colour: a dank shade of grey. It takes a while for the events to fall into focus. Eventually these interconnected pathways loop around to form a coherent pattern. Those familiar with Rowling’s previous work will need to readjust their expectations. Her latest creation draws upon gallows humour; its glossy surface marred by the vileness that sears deep into consciousness. Having lived on benefits (welfare) for a while, she can claim to have some insight into the abyss.
Rowling’s transition to the world of adult fiction may seem effortless. Here all the unpleasantness hinted at in her fantasy world is magnified. None of the enchantment is. Every now and then, however sporadic gleams of brilliance emanating from within serve as reminders of the genius at work.
Despite its solid debut on the bestseller chart, the reviews have been mixed. Her first adult novel is an expose that hits all the difficult notes; from the mean spirited, unbecoming contours of the provincial life to the deep fissures caused by political and racial divide. It can be stashed at the back in the R-rated aisle because of its unflinching portrayals, explicit content and refusal to switch reality with sugar-coated alternates. While the author is to be commended for daring to experiment with such a drab colour palette, venturing out into this chamber of horrors requires nerves of steel. Mercifully, Rowling’s next book will be for children.