'Eastenders on Steroids' -That's my three word review of Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Eastenders - for those are fortunate enough not to have ever seen (Don't you lead a charmed life?) is a long running soap on the BBC set in the East of London. There are clan wars, sordid affairs, pregnant teenagers and the odd attempt to acknowledge minority citizens. J K Rowling's book transposes that plot line onto a small british village, Pagford, that is thrown into disarray by the sudden death of a local councilman- Barry Fairbrother. The empty seat becomes the bone of contention as townsmen and women from different walks of life and differing personal agendas put their names forward to contest the seat, none of them deserving candidates in my opinion, which sets into motion a series of events that culminate, as always, in skeletons walking free of their closets, disillusioned suicidal teenagers and death. Through the dialogue and the prejudices, J K Rowling tries to weave in her own agenda, which is to lament the viciousness of gossip, breakdown of family values and the dark side of human nature. All of which is surprisingly entertaining, just like an episode of Eastenders.
Moving on from the plotline and into the writing, the first page reads like one from a Harry Potter novel. She takes on the usual third person omniscient view point- " Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner. [...]", and setting the scene that will be the catalyst for the storyline moving forward. Rowling's tone is fairly acerbic through the entire book, especially when it comes to sex, which is abundant throughout the novel, as if overcompensating for the fact that she is a children's author. "The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no long vanished with decompressed." Toto, we're not in Hogwarts anymore! Especially since none of the characters, and I kid you not, none, not even the children are likable. Okay make the toddler. But that's it. So there's no Molly Wobbles or Dobby here to endear you to the book.
Rowling doesn't pull any punches whether it is commenting on the effects of racial bullying of a sikh teenage girl with too much facial hair or the debilitating effects of subliminal class warfare so deeply entrenched in the fabric of the village society, that it echoes in every dialogue. At the heart of the story is the battle between the success of rehabilitation and upward mobility. For instance, can we, today, take someone from a slum in mumbai, enroll him in Cathedral and watch him grow up to become a CEO of a major bank in twenty years. Will you allow your child to go to school with that kid from the slums? Will that child infect others with his grim view world or will he change? These are some of the topics Rowling addresses but in a terribly superficial manner, exactly like an Eastenders episode.
Rowling is a great storyteller and she really does reel you in with her seedy plot line but once you are done with it you're left feeling exactly the way you feel after you've bitched someone out- dirty and guilt ridden but quite ready to jump right in into the next bitching session.