The Casual Vacancy

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JK Rowling

Casual racism, local politics, secrets and lies, swearing, shagging, joint smoking, smack scoring, teenage kicks, mid-life crisis, class hatred, self-harming, misery, conflict and death - these are just a few of the delights in store for readers of JK Rowling's new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. Harry Potter it ain't.

The sudden death of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother provides the starting point for Rowling's dissection of the picturesque English town of Pagford and the working class estate that adjoins it. Rowling assembles a range of fairly broad characters - the teenage tearaway, the pompous busybody, the wife-beater, the sexually frustrated sex shop owner - whose lives are closely woven together. Most of them are thoroughly nasty to each other most of the time. As an internecine war breaks out over Fairbrother's vacant council seat, they plot each other's humiliation.

Readers of the Harry Potter series will immediately see variations on the dullard Dursley family from those books in the characters of Pagford. Though Rowling includes down and outs alongside well heeled Pagfordians, her ire is aimed at the mentality of small-town middle class bigots and blowhards. The main villains of Pagford own shops, vote Tory and love to gossip. Like her children's books, The Casual Vacancy has an intricate and somewhat convoluted plot, which clicks into place like clockwork.

This is both the novel's attraction and its weakness. The large cast of characters sometimes seem submerged under the weight of the complicated and carefully crafted plot, developing according to the requirements of the story and behaving very predictably. At times the characters become mere functions of the plot, not the other way round.

Rowling's publishers celebrate her as a master "storyteller"; this is both a fair acknowledgement of her skill at cooking up very readable stories and a concession to reviewers who say her prose is a bit plain and clunky. I think her writing style has improved now that she's not under pressure to quickly churn out the Harry Potter novels, but it remains uneven. Some of her metaphors work; some feel forced.

The Casual Vacancy has been jokingly compared to George Eliot's Middlemarch - dubbed "Mugglemarch", in reference to the non-magic folks of the Harry Potter books. The comparison is more apt than you might imagine. Eliot's 1874 novel - now worshipped by many literary liberals - is a study of a provincial English town that tries to show how the complex interior lives of its inhabitants interact with public events. The political thrust of this approach is, I think, that social conflict is usually caused by people misunderstanding each other, or by prejudice.

This is exactly the kind of fictional social criticism Rowling is attempting. If Eliot can be criticised for burying her characters in "essayism", Rowling seems unsure how to develop her characters when they are not animated by the plot. But despite these weaknesses The Casual Vacancy is an enjoyable tale.

Jack Farmer

The Casual Vacancy is published by Little, Brown, £20