I am sure I cannot be the only one to have spent the first few chapters of this book expecting Dementors, a flying motorbike or a Hippogriff to come hurtling round the corner but once I got over that I really enjoyed Rowling’s spot on portrayal of life in the fictional West Country town of Pagford. It opens with the demise of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, whose championing of a closer relationship with the local council estate called the Fields where has was born, has won him both friends and enemies amongst the local great and good. As supporters and opponents line up to fill Barry’s shoes on the council and determine the future of Pagford, Rowling takes us behind the town’s front doors to reveal all kinds of scheming, secrets and skulduggery.
We know she can tell stories and THE CASUAL VACANCY is no less good in this respect than the Harry Potter books. But what’s thrown into the mix here – and is a pleasant surprise – is Rowling’s acute eye for parody, her insight into people’s vices and a healthy dose of honesty. Very few of the residents of Pagford escape her satirical observation. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of over fed and sanctimonious local butcher, Howard Mollison, who is leader of the parish council and relentless in his sucking up to those richer and more powerful than him. Howard’s daughter in law, Samantha, obsessed with the sculpted abs of a singer in a boy band, is also a triumph. But it’s the characters on the estate that elicited most of my sympathy, especially Krystal Wheedon, who is battling to keep her much younger brother Robbie being taken away by social services from their drug addict mother, Terri. The petty troubles of the Mollison’s, for example, pale into insignificance beside the tragedies that befall the Wheedons but, whilst Rowling’s politics shines through, she doesn’t fall into any obvious traps – this is a multi dimensional book full of complex, real personalities that simultaneously reflect the best and worst of human nature.
Interestingly, it’s the teenagers that give the plot its momentum, hacking in to the council website and posing as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother to wield some rare power over the adults of Pagford. This works practically in that the older generations are perhaps less likely to have the appropriate IT skills, but it also suggests that Rowling is still fascinated by what goes on in young people’s heads. This very definitely isn’t a book written for children though. Funny in parts, this is essentially a very dark book – drug taking, self harming, domestic abuse, rape, and suicide all happens behind Pagford’s closed doors. Rowling seems fascinated by the shortsightedness and hypocrisy of the town’s residents, returning time and again to the crushing impact of poverty and inequality, to the damaging decisions of people unable – or unwilling – to open their minds to difference and disadvantage. In doing so, and whilst exploring the modern tendency to judge others from positions of relative anonymity, Rowling has herself very publicly, passed judgement on the snobbery and smugness that infects Pagford. Thank goodness, frankly, because it’s this which elevates THE CASUAL VACANCY from something that might otherwise have been little more than an updated Joanna Trollope novel.
In the interviews which accompanied the publication of her first book for adults, Rowling was suitable sanguine about its likely reception – “The worst that can happen is everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” It isn’t. It’s not shockingly good either. She’s not suddenly developed overnight into a poet or a modern day George Eliot. But this book does give us what we might reasonably expect of a Rowling novel – a good read, a smart plot and characters we can root for. And that is plenty to recommend it, in my book.