A municipal council election doesn't exactly fire the imagination the way a school for wizards does, but J.K. Rowling makes both the settings for showdowns between good vs. evil. Unfortunately, without nifty spells and brooms handy, the forces of good may be overmatched in her new novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Five years after Rowling said goodbye to Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, and the other characters that made her the most bestselling writer in history, she has published her first novel for grown-ups. Critically speaking, this is a riskier proposition than wandering into the Forbidden Forest after dark wearing Lady Gaga's meat dress. Commercially speaking, Rowling has enough fans that she could scribble a limerick on a crumpled napkin and turn it into a bestseller.
Some people questioned why Rowling would write another book, since she no longer needs to worry about the heating bill or saving enough for college. This seems to me to be missing the point: I don't imagine Stephen King has had to sweat his mortgage payment in many a moon, but nobody suggested he take up bee-keeping after the seventh "Dark Tower" novel. To pick another novelist tied in imagination to his most famous character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published 21 novels that didn't once mention Baker Street or a certain detective, plus 14 short story collections, several dozen poems, nonfiction, and even an operetta.
“The Casual Vacancy” is definitely not Harry Potter and the Empty Council Seat. Nor is it “Mugglemarch,” as a New Yorker profile dubbed it. Rowling's prose isn't equal to Eliot's, and there are no Dorothea Brookes. If there were, I suspect Rowling would have her commit suicide – the ending of “The Casual Vacancy” ranges somewhere between “Tess of the D'Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure” on the English Country Bleakness Scale.
The novel is satirical and pointed in its depiction of claustrophobic small-town English life – complete with all the drug use, sex, and swearing of an author cutting loose after 10 years of being bound by the constrictions of writing for 9- to 12-year-olds.
No one will build a theme park of “The Casual Vacancy,” but as a satire of English village life, it's quite readable. Rowling isn't ripping up traditional narrative the way Zadie Smith did in “NW,” but they both are examining class structure in modern British society.
When the novel opens, council member Barry Fairbrother is taking his wife, Mary, out for their anniversary dinner to make up for neglecting her all day to work on an article about a local teenager. They never make it through the doors of the “smug little golf club”: Fairbrother is felled by an aneurysm, leaving an opening on the town council (otherwise known as a “casual vacancy”).
Rowling introduces the rest of the multi-generational cast as news of Fairbrother's death spreads around the small town of Pagford. (“Goes to show, doesn't it?” is the town's collective verdict.) There's Miles and Samantha Mollison, and his parents, Howard, the de facto mayor, and Shirley, a marvel of pink-and-white maliciousness. The Mollison père views Fairbrother's untimely demise as a chance to create a political dynasty.
Petty crook Simon Price sees the open seat as an opportunity for some easy graft, while Colin Wall wants to step in to his late best friend's role as a memorial. Meanwhile, lawyer Gavin Hughes is trying unsuccessfully to dump his single-mother girlfriend, Kay, a social worker who moved to Pagford to be near him. The town's doctor, Parminder Jawanda, is determined to spike Howard at every turn.
Picture an entire town of Dursleys – small-minded, piggish, grabbily determined to get What's Coming To Them. Then nestle it among hills with a river running through it.
Among the students, there are no Weasley twins, although at least one boy is understudying Draco Malfoy: Teenage pranks hew exclusively toward the ugly – cyberbullying, computer hacking, and orchestrated campaigns of terror against those unfortunate enough to attend Winterdown Comprehensive. Unsurprisingly, most of the teens are more vivid than their elders, even without wands and Quidditch. (There are definitely a few that a reader longs to scoop up and deposit on Platform 9 3/4).
Simon's son Andrew, an acne-ridden teen (seriously, it's almost its own character), has a crush on Gaia, the new girl, who is friends with Sukhvinder Jawanda, Parminder's daughter, who is being tormented by Stuart “Fats” Wall, Colin's son and Andrew's best friend.
Besides his family, no one may feel the loss of Fairbrother more than teen Krystal Weedon, who grew up in the Fields where Fairbrother was born. Her addict mother is on her last chance at the methadone clinic and she is one needle away from losing Robbie, the toddler Krystal adores and looks after the best she can. Fairbrother had started a crew team that gave Krystal an outlet from the Fields, the squalor of which Rowling renders in Dickensian detail, but without his help, her prospects look vanishingly slim.
In fact, that's the tragedy underpinning “The Casual Vacancy”: The novel's hero dies on page 5. It just takes the townsfolk and readers longer to realize just how much was lost that night in the golf club parking lot.