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The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first book after the Harry Potter series, and her first book for adults. It isn’t worth the wait!
Review by Unmana Datta
There are many things to like about J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy. It’s set in a small town where everyone knows each other, a location that’s well-described and allowed me, who’s never been to England, to picture it. This fictional town, like every real place, is populated with flawed individuals – petty, selfish, narrow-minded, but who often also demonstrate kindness, empathy, and courage. It has many characters, from teenagers having a hard time in school to several people in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations who are also dealing with high-school-type drama – so whatever stage of life you’re in, you’ll find someone to relate to.
Or so must the author and publisher have thought. This last doesn’t quite seem to work in the book’s favour – with so many characters, I had trouble remembering who was who – character sketches were quick, and I had little time to really get to know these people.
There’s also a heavy-handedness that the author can’t quite seem to shake off. Most of the characters are painted in broad strokes. The abusive husband and father is abusive. The commitment phobe ignores his partner and falls for a woman who has no interest in him. The boy teenager is horny. The girl teenager is pretty and lonely. The dead man was a hero. The drug addict mother is a whore. The Indian-origin man is handsome and a doctor. (And that’s literally it. In a novel in which we learn a little of so many characters’ thoughts, we only see Vikram from the outside, a man whom women other than his wife lust after.)
The Sikh woman is religious – and seems to be the only person who is, with long religious lessons crowding her thoughts. (Giving me the malicious idea that Rowling was showing off her knowledge of Sikhism – or having done her research, decided to use it all.) The Sikh girl is ugly and unpopular. Oh, there’s a pretty Sikh girl too, but she’s not one of the characters we are to care about.
But most of my disappointment with the book stems from the character of Krystal Weedon. She’s the Snape of the story. The one who everyone dislikes (except the dead hero), but who is a courageous person who is always misunderstood and ill-treated. Which is fine as a metaphor, but this should be a person. I liked the young girl who swore profusely and didn’t seem to give a damn and was even violent sometimes. But Rowling does not let you forget she is a victim, and has misfortune after misfortune happen to her. Worse, this happens concurrently with more trivial issues like a middle-aged woman’s lust for a teenage pop star, which we’re supposed to care about while Krystal Weedon is fighting for her life.
The other character I was interested in was Kay Bawden, a social worker with a young daughter (the aforementioned pretty teenager) who moves to tiny Padford for a man. Kay seems to actually like her work and to do it well, but Rowling doesn’t show us much of this side of her character, instead driving home that she’s a difficult, possessive girlfriend and an inadequate mother. Kay’s relationship with Gavin didn’t ring true to me – we’re shown that she’s more interested than him, but little about why she’s so interested; what made her uproot herself and her daughter from London to move to a small town and a job with a smaller salary?
If you’re a devoted JKR fan, go on, read it anyway. For everyone else, I’m sure you can find a better use of your time (500 pages!) and money (Rs 850!).
Publishers: Little, Brown Book Group
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Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested
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