Come Back,Harry!https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/come-back-harry/

Come Back,Harry!

JK Rowling continues to conjure up new worlds with finesse,but the muggles of The Casual Vacancy are too miserable to love

Book: The Casual Vacancy

Author: JK Rowling

Publisher: Little Brown

Price: Rs 850

Pages: 512

The release of a JK Rowling book has always been an epic event. Hysterical fans. Record sales. Teetering cash. Her first adult book The Casual Vacancy might be flying off shelves. But the unsaid truth is out there — it doesn’t deserve the hype,the magic is over and Oh! how we miss the wizard. We loved Harry for the glorious and happy escape he gave us into a reality so unlike our own. It was an unbelievable world,yet we felt genuine grief and joy for Harry,and his friends.

Pagford of The Casual Vacancy is the antithesis of the Hogwarts of Harry Potter. There is no one to root for,no one to tear up for,no one to admire. Harry’s world was curious and fantastic and Hogwarts’ teenagers funny and ordinary. Pagford’s teens are rebels without causes (with the exception of Krystal Weedon,who is irritating as an itch but actually brave). Rowling’s genius is such that even imaginary textbooks like Quidditch through the ages are best-sellers. Maybe imagination is what’s missing from The Casual Vacancy. A few chapters into the book,when the characters are still debuting,one sorely wishes the slow muggle march would end and the wizards would whoosh in.

When Barry Fairbrother dies,he leaves behind a divided town and an empty seat on the local council. With his death,the casual vacancy — as it’s termed in the Local Council Administration handbook — in the sleepy West Country town becomes the focus of the townsfolk’s machinations. JK Rowling creates a cast of characters — pompous men,petty wives,righteous councillors and violent fathers — all impossible to like and a plot that unfolds around the empty seat. Exploring the suburban under-belly is certainly not new to art. Cinema,in particular,has cut across suburban towns in the US and UK to explore this theme and establish that the middle-classes,afraid of their own perversity,couch it in false nicety (think,Fish Tank,Buffalo-66,Hundstage etc). The Casual Vacancy establishes this but with much greater urgency.

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The plot is set in motion when Barry the only-good-samaritan-in-Pagford,dies before the crucial vote. The news spreads quickly across the town,gleefully received by the Mollisons,almost not-believed by the Jawandas and the Walls,and a matter of indifference to the Prices and Bawdens. And when election for the vacancy becomes imminent,battle lines are drawn in the town,Barry’s loyal sentinels versus the Mollison Old Guard.

Barry had been one of the folks from the disputed Fields,mired in poverty before he became one of Pagford’s own. In Krystal Weedon,the 16-year old foul-mouthed scamp from the Fields,Barry had seen a bit of himself. Krystal Weedon,with her prolific curses,easy sexuality and indomitable will is the real heroine of this book.

But Rowling’s Pagford is riddled with hypocrisies. All the adults are caught in abusive and fractured relationships with their spouses and children. Samantha Mollison doesn’t love her husband Miles. Bored out of her wits with the Mollisons’ daily council talk,her fantasies are childish and well,funny. She marvels at the concept of an arranged marriage with the gorgeous Vikram Jawanda…“imagine being ordered to marry,having to do that,the virgin condemned to her fate…and getting that!” At the height of her desperation in her marriage,she becomes obsessed with her daughter’s favourite boy band,buying concert tickets for herself and even a band T-shirt and ends up snogging a 16-year old. It’s a masterful portrayal of a woman trapped in a marriage she can’t casually vacate. Rowling’s teenagers meanwhile are preoccupied with self,sex,fear and loathing.

And when the ghost of Barry surfaces unexpectedly,outing alarming but accurate secrets about the families — Jawandas,Prices,Mollisons — relationships begin to crack and the plot hurtles towards chaos.

The Casual Vacancy is not an easy read. Rowling’s characters are well-etched in their pettiness,scheming and unhappiness but they don’t interest me as they interest Barry. Rowling’s eye for detail hurts sometimes,for the bluntness with which she lays out abuse and drug addiction. But Pagford,after Barry’s death,is like a town beset by dementors — empty and unhappy. As the day after the election dawns,Rowling pushes the plot towards a contrived catastrophic end,nudging her characters to a finality that isn’t natural. Harry Potter with his hippogriffs,thestrals and basilisks was so much more credible.