Thursday, December 6, 2012


logoThursday, December 06, 2012

Still magical

Still magical

Charms, magic and hocus pocus make way for the drama of local politics in J K Rowling’s long awaited book

The pretty little town of Pagford is any small English town, with cobbled streets and tidy houses, and this is how the residents wish to keep it. But in an act seen as a betrayal by its residents, land belonging to Pagford is sold, and ‘Fields,’ an unattractive, low income housing estate is built on that land. Eventually, as communities do, Fields grows to the doorstep of Pagford. The people of Pagford are forced to share their school and other facilities with Fields, and to interact with its residents. It is no longer possible to ignore the seamier side of life as lived by their council house neighbours, many of whom, to add to their undesirability, are on welfare. This inability to ignore is not for want of trying.

The Bellchapel Addiction Clinic provides methadone treatment for drug addiction. An overwhelming number of its clients live in Fields, but it is the Parish of Pagford that provides the funds for its programmes. Pagford has been lobbying to close the clinic years, without attempting to recognize its crucial role in helping addicts overcome their addiction.  The main protagonist of the novel, Barry Fairbrother, a local Pagford Parish Councillor, who dies on the second page, was fighting this closure. His successor will either continue Fairbrother’s efforts or oppose them.  
J K Rowling did say that she sometimes has ‘a tendency to walk on the dark side,’ and the dark face of poverty and middle class bigotry is what this book is about, that and terrible dysfunctional relations, between partners, and between children and their parents.
One of the factors that cannot fail to impress is the bleak similarity between different societies and cultures when it comes to poverty, addiction, and abusive relationships.  Few writers could have pulled back the covers to reveal the horror beneath as sharply as J K Rowling does, or with as much honesty.
Most people who have ‘been there,’ are unwilling to admit the fact, and prosperity blunts their recollections. This has not happened in J K Rowling’s case. Pagford is drawn with a sensitive hand and obvious firsthand experience, instead of the quaint lens through which England is normally viewed.
There is humour, such as the tail end of Fairbrother’s funeral when the congregation files out of the church trying not to walk in time to the strong beat of a song chosen by the dead man’s children. There is also Howard, who takes nothing for granted but is inclined to believe what a woman says because she styles herself ‘Ms.’
It is equally obvious that Rowling’s teenage years were unpleasant (‘You couldn’t give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. I hated it.’)  It shows up in her portrayal of Fats, Krystal, Andrew, Gaia and Sukhvinder, dysfunctional teenagers from dysfunctional families.
Krystal Weedon of uncertain paternity is a sixteen year old from Fields, with a drug addict for a mother and a little brother who has scabs on his little bottom because his mother never washes him. Krystal pushes the limits of everyone’s tolerance with her smoking, swearing and easy sexual relationships. She is unable to speak without a four letter word and is unused to reading to the point of being barely able to do so. Most people in Pagford think she is despicable, even evil. However it is Krystal who displays the greatest courage and the most humanity where her old grandmother and her brother are concerned. Far from being evil, Krystal shows up the evil that is a society which fails to help and understand people like her.
No writer exists in a vacuum. If Rowling’s Harry Potter books bear similarities to Tolkien’sHobbit series, The Casual Vacancy has something in common with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. Both are gimlet eyed commentaries on modest communities of people and their daily lives. There are no fast paced plots in either, and no personalities of heroic stature, no Jane Eyres, or Heathcliffs; the character closest to heroism, Barry Fairbrother, is a short, dead man who had an unhappy relationship with his wife and was born in Fields.  The plot revolves around the power play within the community prior to elections to fill Fairbrother’s post.
Shirley Mollison’s is quite the most distasteful character in the book, because she has the least excuse for her faults.  Some may find others more distasteful, such as Obbo, the drug pusher and fence, but Obbos rarely exist in caring communities, while Shirley Morrisons are everywhere and are far more dangerous because they are insidious. Shirley, who is ready to kill a husband she thinks she loves, who ignores a lesbian daughter and idolizes a son, and then proceeds to sabotage his marriage; Shirley, the administrator of the council website who deliberately leaves defamatory remarks on the message board, and takes a ghoulish delight in being the first to convey scandal in dulcet tones.
Divided into seven parts, the book spans some 500 pages in hardcover, and has its flaws although it is eminently readable on the whole. Part one is rather tedious, dedicated to introducing the large palette of characters, but that may be an unavoidable process. The language used by the Weedon family is laboured, probably because Rowling has worked hard at reproducing it phonetically, and the effort shows.
In every way this is a good read, for adults. Just as Hannibal Lecter and Stevens the butler were so distinctively portrayed by the same actor, Anthony Hopkins, the only resemblance this book bears to the Harry Potter books also written by Rowling lies in her skill and the utter simplicity of language in both.
Rowling, who is the founder of ‘Lumos’ a charity for disadvantaged children, has supported the charity in the best possible way by means of this book, which graphically illustrates why such charities are worth supporting. It is an acid test of good writing if it provides a greater insight into large matters, or makes one think. This book does both. Read it.