If anyone could go one better in fiction after the Harry Potter books, it ought to have been JK Rowling herself. Sadly, The Casual Vacancy has to go down as her worst book, and I haven’t checked if she’s written any since.
My father bought The Casual Vacancy – that too, a hardback – a decade ago. If I am not mistaken The Economist had even reviewed it, and I remember thinking, of all the books and authors around, they decide to write about this. From that review, it didn’t seem like any book that I wanted to read. Besides, the title did strike me as odd, even then. It reminded me of a conversation with my chartered accountant in Delhi around 15 years ago, who was filing my income tax returns for me. Referring to the Perfect Relations PR agency bosses, I asked him who the hell they thought they were hiring – a casual wage labourer, or what? So, when the book arrived at my parents’ place in Goa from Amazon India, I had an inkling it might have something to do with that conversation. After all, aren’t they and everyone else only guessing and second-guessing all the time?
I have managed to put off reading the book for 10 whole years! Finally, I decided to pick up the book, though I don’t know where the dust jacket has disappeared. The Casual Vacancy, published by Little, Brown UK, is a book about life in a small fictional town of Pagford in England. It begins with the death of a local parish councillor, Barry Fairbrother, while he and his wife Mary are on their way to the local Golf Club for a Sunday dinner. Their friends, the Mollisons – Miles and Samantha – happen to witness Barry’s sudden collapse outside the Club as they are exiting, and try to help. From there, Rowling zooms out and pans across the various key families and couples in Pagford and tells us about them and their interactions.
Strangely, a lot of the book has to do with a school in Pagford, which attracts people from Pagford as well as from Yarvil which is the parish council to which the town of Pagford belongs. Rowling sets up a brief history of Pagford and the Yarvil council to give us the context in which the book is set. As you’d expect anywhere in England, it has to do with development – of the real estate kind – and it explains the economic and cultural divide between Pagford, Yarvil and Fields. We learn how St Thomas’s Church of England Primary School dealt with its poorer cousins:
“No part of Pagford’s unwanted burden caused more fury or bitterness than the fact that Fields children now fell inside the catchment area of St Thomas’s Church of England Primary School. Young Fielders had the right to don the coveted blue and white uniform, to play in the yard beside the foundation stone laid by Lady Charlotte Sweetlove and to deafen the tiny classrooms with their Yarvil accents.”
If you think this captures the tensions of class-ridden England, wait. There’s more. Including a comparison with Mexicans crossing over to Texas, at the risk of Rowling sounding like Trump.
“It swiftly became common lore in Pagford that houses in the Fields had become the prize and goal of every benefit-supported Yarvil family with school-age children; that there was a great ongoing scramble across the boundary line from the Cantermill Estate, much as Mexicans streamed into Texas. Their beautiful St Thomas’s – a magnet for professional commuters to Yarvil, who were attracted by the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.”
Rowling tells us that to help households in the Fields avoid the onerous responsibility of buying school uniforms, attaining bus passes and of waking earlier to make it to school on time, their children could now go to a plain-clothes primary school at Cantermill Estate. It is later that we discover that the school for poor folks from the Fields is called Winterdown Comprehensive.
We all know how class-conscious English society is and can be, but Rowling’s use of the school uniform to divide people is nothing but deceptive and misplaced. If anything, school uniforms are mean to erase class differences among students.
If this is not enough, we also have the “disruptive” elements from the Fields, like Krystal Weedon, who St Thomas’s was forced to take as a student. Krystal is the daughter of Terri, a drug addict who is being counseled at a de-addiction clinic. She has a hard time keeping her mum off drugs – “don’t use any” is her constant refrain – and also taking care of her tiny brother, Robbie, and taking him to nursery.
She is the archetypal rebel teenager, and her most redeeming quality is that she was part of the school rowing team. Encouraged by none other than late councillor, Barry Fairbrother. Rowling reserves the most coarse, vulgar language for Krystal, who is always the angry young woman lashing out at the world. Including at Obbo, the smack peddler who supplies her mother Terri, and who also rapes Krystal at her home.
Rowling’s language is no less coarse and vulgar. If Krystal’s slow passage up the school “resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned”, Howard Mollison’s “great apron of a stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis…” and Samantha Mollison’s brassiere business “is not just breasting the recession alright, it is surprisingly bouncy.” It is another matter that the Mollisons in Pagford move their daughters to St Anne’s, the private girls’ school in Yarvil, for fear of St Thomas’s ending up with classrooms full of Krystals.
At the heart of the story of this small town and its gossip is mainly the casual vacancy that has been caused by Barry Fairbrother’s sudden demise. The search for a new parish councillor and the contest between various candidates, all of whom know each other. Here one must mention that there is an Indian family in Pagford as well, the Jawandas, Sikhs from Punjab in India. While Vikram Jawanda, a cardiac surgeon, has plans to run for the local parish elections, his wife, Parminder, also a doctor, is always on edge and quick to react to the slightest provocation. She is once called a Paki-cow by a patient. They have three children and one of them, Sukhvinder is taunted and cyber-bullied by schoolmates for being hairy and is even called a hermaphrodite.
The third connecting strand at the heart of the story is related to the cultural conflict between Pagford and the Fields, with one candidate, Simon Price, threatening to close down the deaddiction clinic, which has been treating people like Terri. Simon Price’s home has many stolen goods, including his new computer, so he must be some kind of thief or racketeer. Price’s own son Andrew is determined to sabotage his election candidacy and hacks into the parish council website to post a message about his father’s unfitness to run, including his home being furnished with stolen goods. In the process of describing this, Rowling tells us about SQL injections, which sound like some bit of code meant to hack into computer systems.
The Casual Vacancy reads like one is overhearing conversations between people in Pagford. Because you never really get to know them as characters, and Rowling through her own use of foul language and crude descriptions prevents you from even wanting to know them. It is as if Rowling wants the entire town – especially the Fields and Yarvil elements – to come across as coarse people, lacking even basic human decency. While there is mention of a recession – Rowling wrote this in 2012 in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – there is nothing to tell us of its effects on the town’s population. At least that might have made a better story, of a precursor to the Brexit referendum that came four years later.
That is perhaps too much to expect from this book, because it has been written with malicious intent right from the word go. And the people behind it are Perfect Relations idiot bosses in India, since much of the language and conversations are what I had already heard in their Delhi office. BBDO India (Chennai) also probably have something to do with it. As I have been writing on my blog and posting on social media, they have been meddling big time in publishing – both media and books.
Imagine my shock when I discovered that The Casual Vacancy was also a TV show in Britain! It was apparently shot in a small town called Painswick in Gloucestershire and was adapted from Rowling’s book by screenwriter, Sarah Phelps. From what I read in the article on BBC One and saw on the TV clips, Vikram, the cardiac surgeon turns into a cosmetic surgeon. And Parminder is unusually dark-skinned for a Punjabi Sikh woman.
The Casual Vacancy book title is not the only aspect alluding to a conversation with my chartered accountant years ago in Delhi, it is many ways also a malicious attempt to sow division and discord between me and my friends as well as former colleagues, as PR agency idiots have been doing for the past 18 years.
The idea of a political councillor too is mischief. I suspect it has come from a deliberate misreading (mis-guessing) of my thoughts, when I decided years ago in Delhi that in matters related to my work and career in advertising and brand communications, I will keep my own counsel in future. Trust the PR agency idiots to deliberately misread it as councillor as they have done with this book; in recent days, having guessed that I am finally reading this book, they have also mischievously read it as legal counsel. Someone ought to explain the meaning of keeping one’s counsel to them. They are the ones who are soon going to be in the dock, and might require legal counsel.
Then, it is not mere coincidence that the school by the same name, St Thomas happens to be the school from where an old childhood and family friend of mine, Priya Christian, finished her schooling in Delhi, while I finished from Modern School, Vasant Vihar, also in Delhi. We then went to different colleges in Delhi University, she to St Stephens to study history, while I studied economics in Hindu College. She has lived in London for decades now having married a Briton, and has for some unknown reason chosen not to keep in touch. I am in touch with her husband, Richard, though and hope that someday, I will hear from her or meet her again.
I must mention that I haven’t yet finished reading The Casual Vacancy, but I intend to do so. If nothing else, just to know how much worse it can get – with all the toxic PR agency nonsense – and also how the sleazy potboiler ends.
Alright, now that I have finished with The Casual Vacancy, am I glad the ordeal is over. Perhaps it was too much of an ordeal for the author, JK Rowling too. The book hurtles towards its end, as if the author was just keen to get it over and done with. Miles Mollison, who runs a deli opens a café called The Copper Kettle in Pagford where some of the schoolkids like Sukhvinder, her friend Gaia Bawden, and Andrew go to work. Miles also gets elected as the new Parish councillor, in place of the deceased Barry Fairbrother. Meanwhile, all is not well at the Weedon household. The de-addiction clinic has been closed down and it gives the Mollisons and their ilk the chance to say good riddance to the Fields. Krystal and her little brother, Robbie, meet with gruesome ends to their lives.
And the mystery of who was putting up those posts on the Pagford Parish Council’s website about the unsuitability of candidates under the name of The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother is solved! Simon Price whose house is furnished with stolen goods including a stolen computer, loses his job and is then arrested.
Even through the last couple of chapters of the book, Perfect Relations mischief is more than evident. Sukhvinder, the one who is called hairy and a hermaphrodite by Fats Waller, has a tendency to self-harm herself with a razor, and so she has scars all over her arms. Gaia lends her her full-sleeved jumper to wear under the uniform that they’ve been asked to wear at the café. When asked why by the Mollisons, Gaia jumps to Sukhvinder’s defence and makes up an excuse that she suffers from eczema and is conscious about her arms.
This too has come from guessing or having prior knowledge that I suffer from nummular eczema, which was diagnosed some years ago in Goa and I take medication for it, whenever it erupts. The dermatologist said it was hereditary and my father too has a pretty bad case of it, though he is in good health otherwise. He has never had it treated, while I have had to change my soap and my moisturizing lotion to medicated ones that my dermatologist has prescribed. I must clarify, though, that I have no such tendency to self-harm myself, and that I continue to stay relatively cheerful and busy through all the years that I have been out of work and with my parents in Goa, even though it pains me that I haven’t been able to look after them and my grannies the way I had intended.
When I shared the first version of this post with my friend, Richard (Priya’s husband) in London, he replied that he had not read this book, but had seen a TV show of a detective thriller also by JK Rowling. I was flabbergasted and so checked on Google, and guess what. She has been writing a series of detective fiction under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.
I don’t think I want to try reading any of those, because I don’t read much of that genre of fiction, and there are very few authors of that genre whom I read and enjoy. In fact, The Casual Vacancy has left me wondering if Rowling can write for adults at all.
This post has been updated with the addition of the last six paragraphs, on August 6, 2022.
The featured image at the start of this post is of Painswick, Gloucestershire, where the BBC One TV show of Casual Vacancy was filmed; Image by Jongleur100 on Wikimedia Commons.