A strange uneasiness woke Petunia Dursley up much before the diffused rays of the sun swept the manicured lawns of 7, Privet Drive, Little Whinging. She had a premonition of something terrible about to happen to her ever since she received an owl from Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry 11 years ago, asking her to look out for the signs. She had been watchful these 11 years and had come to believe that Harry was, in fact, not magic. As she climbed the single flight of stairs down to her immaculate kitchen, that uneasiness about how her husband Vernon, who was so quick to work up a murderous rage regarding anything concerning Harry, would receive the news of shifting the boy to a local school now that he was 11, remained. He had after all outgrown his primary.
The Story That Lived
This is not an extract from JK Rowling's now immortal Harry Potter series. But this could have been the opening to her debut adult novel 'Casual Vacancy'. Imagine a muggle Harry Potter, complete with his decency, sense of justice and considerable insecurities, albeit with a different name, living permanently at Privet Drive attending a muggle school - this is the story of Andrew Price, of Casual Vacancy.
This has a lot of spoilers so those who haven't read Casual Vacancy yet, would do well to avoid this piece altogether. Rowling, that clever, clever woman. It wasn't until three-fourth of the book was over that the idea began to form. And once it did, the signs were strewn all over the pages of the book. With 'Casual Vacancy', the story of which was guarded better than the Buckingham Palace, Rowling has turned the world of Potter fans upside down. For years, we were roaming the dark and dank corridors of Hogwarts with Harry and his wizard friends oblivious to what was going on at Privet Drive while school term was on.
We've met the half-sinister, half-ridiculous inhabitants of Privet Drive from time to time. The unpleasant aunt Petunia, the foul and abusive uncle Vernon, the obnoxious Marjorie Dursley, the squib Arabella Figg, teachers at Harry's first school utterly baffled by his ability to get into trouble without trying to, his school mates, the school bullies, muggle parents of Harry's Hogwarts friends, his ham-fisted cousin Dudley - they've all crossed our path from time to time. We've barely tolerated them because the main action was happening elsewhere - at Hogwarts. What was Privet Drive like when the wizards and witches were away at Hogwarts attending school?
Welcome to Pagford. With 'Casual Vacancy', Rowling has cleverly reversed the universe her characters are set in. Not for nothing is Rowling termed a master narrator. The cobbled streets of Pagford, the setting for her adult novel, is the Privet Drive of the Potter series. There is even a mention of the word 'privet drive' in passing towards the end of the book. All the muggles (and some of the magical people) we earlier thought she sketched seemingly casually come back as full-fledged characters in Casual Vacancy and bring a strong sense of deja vu with them.
Dumbledore vs Barry Fairbrother
The death of Parish Council head and good-guy-in-chief Barry Fairbrother in the idyllic English town of Pagford leads to a mad scramble to fill a position that wields not just power but also inspires respect among the people of Pagford. But overriding everything else is the deep sense of loss at the death of Fairbrother - the only bright and humane reference point in a story so grim that this could well have been the time of Dumbledore's troubled youth and the rise of the dark arts.
Fairbrother has all the traits of Dumbledore - his love for the underdog, his sense of fair play, his perfect understanding of the minds of youths, kindness and compassion for all living and breathing creatures and most of all - his immense wisdom. Like Dumbledore, Fairbrother touches lives both in and outside Pagford and brings around juvenile delinquents from the town's crime-prone locality. The town's grief at his death is paralleled only by the shock and mourning at Dumbledore's demise.
Is Andrew Price the muggle Harry Potter?
Andrew Price, one of the story's numerous protagonists occupies a large part of the narration. In his early teens, he attends school at the local Winterdown Comprehensive, which sits on the fringes of the outskirts of Pagford overlooking the run-down and derelict Fields, whose inhabitants mostly live by petty crimes or on support. Though liked by most in his class, and not entirely unpopular with the girls despite his painful shyness, Price has a secret world of his own tucked away in a festering corner of his heart, hidden from his best friend Stuart 'Fats' Wall. His uneasy relationship with his father Simon Price - a criminally abusive man who runs his household through brute force and terror - forms the basis of the story.
Price is both afraid and secretly defiant of his father. Price falls head over heels for a new girl who arrives from London with her posh accent and exotic beauty, not unlike Cho Chang - Harry's first crush. He is as unnerved by Gaia's confidence and poise as Harry was of Cho's. He does not approve of Fats's cruel taunts about their dyslexic classmate but is entirely dependent on his companionship and approval. He and Fats are inseparable.
'Fats' and Ron Weasley
Using his sharp wit as armour against ridicule, Stuart goes through school as the hugely popular son of the deputy head master - comparable broadly with Ronald Weasley - the son of Ministry of Magic employee Arthur Weasley. He is Price's best friend and co-conspirator. There are strong shades of Dudley Dursley and his band of tormenters in Fats and his friends as they incessantly bully their Sikh classmate Sukhvinder to tears. And like Dudley, Fats comes around in the end to show the spark of humanity that was buried in him all along.
Gaia vs Cho
Gaia is the coolly confident version of a muggle Cho Chang in this narration. She is bitterly unhappy after having to shift to Pagford from London and leaving all her friends behind. Price follows her every move, secretly wishing he had the courage to ask her out, not unlike Harry. But when he does befriends her, it does not end in a happily ever after.
It is amazing how much Rowling has borrowed from her favourite characters in the Potter series. Apart from her penchant for Indian characters, who are the Jawanda family in this book, there is a sinister equivalent of Mundungus Fletcher in Obbo, the drug dealer. Characters such as Miles Mollison, the loud and pompous lawyer elected unanimously to Fairbrother's position, his father and local deli owner Howard Mollison with his booming laugh, his mother slightly unpleasant and gossiping Shirley Mollison, are characters straight out of Dursley's social circle. There is a chapter in 'Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets' about an evening during which Vernon Dursley invites his boss's family to dinner. Read Samantha and Miles Mollison's evening with Gavin and Kay in the 'Casual Vacancy' (especially the spoiled punchline of a joke), to spot the similarities with the Chamber of Secrets.
Arabella Figg and Nana Cath
Nana Cath, a neutral refuge for first the young and abused Terri Weedon and then her daughter Krystal, is the reincarnation of Arabella Figg with whom the abused Harry spent hours while his aunt and uncle were out. While Harry perceived Figg as the slightly batty elderly lady whose house smelled of cats, the squib was, in fact, an anonymous caretaker of the young wizard before he attended Hogwarts. Similarly, Nana Catherine was the primary caretaker of her granddaughter Krystal in her childhood while her mother Terri, a junkie, was inadequate to raise her.
The immaculate lawns and the secrets of the members of the houses that lined the neat streets have found their way into this book. Much like the snobbish residents of Pivet Drive looking down upon Harry's scruffy clothes and general air of abandonment, the inhabitants of Pagford are inherently suspicious of the derelicts from the Fields. Shirley Mollison, though not as evil, actually brings back memories of Professor Umbridge. The bemused Tress is a shadow of both Professor Sybill Trelawny and the kindly Madam Poppy Pomfrey.
Potter fans shouldn't despair that the series is over. Rowling has just revived the best of the Hogwarts and Privet Drive crowd in The Casual Vacancy.