After selling close to half a billion books, J.K. Rowling could probably find a publisher for her weekly grocery list. She could easily rest on her well-deserved laurels and not write another book. But she hasn’t done either and forges into new territory with her writing.
‘The Casual Vacancy’, her first book ‘for adults’, is truly a departure from Hogwarts but it demonstrates that Rowling is an author with a lot more to offer her admirers than wizards. The title of the book is taken from the term used when a political office opens between elections, usually because of the unexpected death of the incumbent.
Rowling’s ‘parish’ of Pagford is a metaphor for contemporary England. There is the town itself, smugly rural, middle class and full of the winners in society. It’s boundaries are being encroached by a modern city just over the hill. In between are the Fields, a dilapidated low cost housing development that has been inserted into the Pagford boundaries. Full of crack heads, prostitutes, thieves and worse, the good burghers of Pagford have been waging a campaign to remove this blot from their idyllic town boundaries.
Barry Fairbrother grew up in the Fields and made good. He’s become a council member in Pagford and manages to exercise an irresistible influence on the warring factions, successful arguing in support of the Fields for years. His unexpected death brings about a vacancy on council and unleashes a battle over who will replace him on council.
Into this battleground Rowling introduces her characters. If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the book it is the number of short scenes at the beginning that left me scrambling to remember who’s who as the book progresses. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that a number of the characters have nicknames that are used interchangeably. The good citizens of Pagford who oppose the Fields show a remarkable degree of hostility and distain for their opponents and their own kind. Wives hate their husbands, children hate their parents and everybody’s got dark secrets. You’d think Voldmort was running the place.
I found the teenage characters more compelling than the adults who, in some ways, sometimes seemed more like arch types. The exception might be the teenager called Fats. The eventual disclosure of his motivation fell rather flat. Rowling is obviously attuned to those down and disenfranchised by society and reveals their plight in a compelling manner and I can see the influence of the BBC’s many modern ‘gritty’ social dramas in this book.
In most repects this is a terrific story and Rowling’s ability to create a tragic hero out of the most unlikely person is a tribute to her creative powers. This is a book worth reading – just don’t approach it with Harry Potter in mind.