Sunday, 15 September 2013

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

Words: Rosie Parry

To pick up The Casual Vacancy with visions of being wrapped in the security of one of Mrs Weasley’s lovingly-knitted jumpers would be naïve. Long gone are the days of a clip around the ear from Uncle Vernon and the long anticipated and oh-so-sweet teenage kisses between Harry and Ginny. Instead, welcome to a world where the ‘conservative’ Rowling unleashes a world of domestic violence, infidelity, substance abuse, racism, self-harm, teen sex and intimations of inbreeding. Scary, even by the Dark Lord’s standards. 

The story follows the intricate web of lives of the people of Pagford, a quintessential small town inhabited by small-town folk, following the untimely death of the councilman, Barry Fairbrother. Barry, loved or loathed, left a seat on the Parish Council. Once filled, this seat could determine the outcome of a controversial effort to rid the town of its council estate (The Fields) and methadone rehab clinic, by allowing them to become part of the neighbouring city. The proud ‘Pagfordians’ who have lived in the town for generations, traditional views as unchanging as their DNA, would like to see the centre in a neat pile of rubble ready to be swept away and forgotten. The Liberal squad of doctors, social workers and teachers are pro-centre and so begins a deep-rooted and venomous feud that bubbles under the surface of the charming rural setting and infests it completely. 

Sound boring? Bring on the teenagers with schemes of sabotage and betrayal. Rowling’s infamously subtle approach to writing allows the reader to immerse themselves in this village of gun powder, treason and plot (whilst the rest of the train watches you sat over your kindle gasping with shock). I would almost compare the book to a soap-opera. Rowling’s notoriously descriptive style, noting each delicate change in tone or body language, allows her to paint a perfect still of each character whilst, adversely, her larger-than life portrayals of them almost reach caricature. (Admittedly this can be rather long-winded at times). The soap-opera metaphor continues down to the format she chooses, with each chapter centering on an individual character.  These characters are, in true Rowling fashion, mirrors to society with political tones framing them in all their glory. The controversial topics are indeed reflected in modern Britain but I found myself asking (as I often do whilst watching a soap), would all of this be happening in one little village? Who cares? It was dramatic, emotional and shocking. But then so is Emmerdale.

Perhaps this comparison is unfair. A lot of small-town dwellers may empathise with their own town issues and gossip. This idle chatter becomes as addictively enticing as reading the national news, if not more so. Pagfordian lives are intertwined, from the GP to the delicatessen owner, and this doesn’t mean that it’s unrealistic. Conceivably, any small town or village inhabitant in the UK could pinpoint each of Rowling’s controversial topics in their own town: ‘she slept with her friend’s husband’ and ‘he is a smack-head’ etc. Either way, Rowling has Nimbus 3000-ed away from fantasy and has found herself firmly rooted in adult fiction. 

“This is a local shop for local people!”
 - The League of Gentlemen 
In fact, she’s so deep-rooted in adult fiction, she’s almost gritty. I found myself cheering her on at times, other moments it felt like my mother was revealing too much about her teenage years. How the hell does she know how to skin up a joint? Oh please life-giver to Dobby, don’t talk about sex! She delves into cyber-bullying, mimics accents and writes candidly about pornography and masturbation. Of course, she’s done her research but her keen eye on society doesn’t go unnoticed. Each character has a trait of someone the reader will have met in life: ‘she’s petty, just like my mother-in-law’ or ‘he loves himself, he reminds me of Dave from work', it would be fair to say she is the literary observationalist to Peter Kay‘s comedic. 

That The Casual Vacancy will draw comparisons to Harry Potter is as inevitable as Elizabeth ending up with Mr. Darcy, but at times I had to ask, is she going out of her way to steer away from expectation? Whatever her motivation, I lived in Pagford for the duration of my read and I’d advise you to give it a visit. 

Oxford Road rating: ★★★★

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