You might be aware, by now, that one of Britain’s most successful authors, JK Rowling, has a new book out and that it has nothing to do with Harry Potter, goblets, hallows or other magical items. In her first book for adults Rowling has chosen a parish council election as her major plot point.
The Casual Vacancy, set in the small town of Pagford, draws on a long line of provincially based British fiction. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is here, as are Joanna Trollope’s ‘Aga-sagas’ and, in a similar fashion, Rowling’s novel is filled with intrigue and domestic tension, seething beneath a respectable surface.
The novel gets going with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a respected man in his early forties. This leaves his seat on the parish council free and Rowling uses this seemingly mundane matter to drop into the houses and minds of the local community.
Her teenage characters are convincing but some of the adults fall back on small-minded, small-town stereotypes. (The Dursleys, Harry Potter’s prejudiced Muggle relations, would fit in well.) That said, Rowling has created a town full of people and wound them together with a complex and well-paced plot. The Casual Vacancy is concerned with issues you can read about in any broadsheet; taking responsibility for sink estates, school catchment areas, domestic violence and drugs. However, moments of tenderness and humour point towards a belief in magic and the everyday.