THE Scotsman’s Books Editor David Robinson reviews JK Rowling’s adult novel.
Once upon a time, when I was a trainee reporter, the job I hated the most was covering parish council meetings.
It was always a wasted evening. Parish councils never had any real power and still don’t. The best I could hope for would be a story about repairing the town’s floral clock or repainting the bus shelters or complaints about the litter by the public conveniences. Woodward and Bernstein it wasn’t.
As I struggled with my inadequate shorthand to do my bit for civic society, I never suspected that there could be anything remotely interesting about the petty parish hall politics being played out in front of me. JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy makes me realise how wrong I was.
Her first novel for five years and her first to be aimed entirely at a grown-up readership is daringly different from her Harry Potter books. Instead of their wide-ranging inventiveness and fantasy, here she restricts herself to an altogether smaller canvas – a parish council election in the fictional town of Pagford in her native West Country. From that apparently unpromising premise, she constructs an exquisite, and occasionally moving, black comedy.
It begins with a death. Parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, a father of four in his forties, is taking his wife to the golf club restaurant to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary when he is felled by an aneurism in the car park.
The news ripples out through the town.
Pagford is an outwardly pretty bourgeois haven, all history and hanging baskets. Within its boundaries, however, it also countains a grotty housing estate ironically named The Fields. Council leader Howard Mollison is set upon dumping The Fields on a neighbouring council and closing down the addiction clinic on which so many of its residents rely. In this, he was implacably opposed by Fairbrother, who had grown up in The Fields, but whose death makes Mollison’s plan more likely to succeed.
Yet there is far more to The Casual Vacancy than that bare outline would suggest. First, because of what Rowling saw (and I never did) about parish councils: that though they might seem pointlessly small-scale, that’s the very point. These aren’t party politics, but the politics of egos and friendships, of family and relationships, which are even more fascinating.
Secondly, that election for Fairbrother’s replacement is itself only the barest scaffolding for what Rowling is really building, only an excuse for her exploration of small-town secrets and lies, a portrait of Pagford at once detailed, fascinating, wide-ranging and interconnected.
We already know from Harry Potter about Rowling’s remarkable ability to handle both a complex plot and a large cast of characters. Here that works equally effectively, especially when the real motor of the plot gets into gear: an apparent campaign to sway the election result by hacking into the council website as The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother and posting on it a series of deeply damaging revelations about both councillors and candidates.
Of the two sides in the debate, Fields-hating Pagford is more easily (too easily?) satirised. Mollison is superficially hearty and genial, but his devoted wife, Shirley, is a gossip-loving mass of prejudice and deference. His solicitor son, Miles, may be ineffectual, but his wife, Samantha, is the kind of hostess who deliberately thinks up awkward questions with which to trap her dinner party guests.
With the pro-Fielders, Rowling swaps black comedy for empathy. Certainly, they have a lot more to put up with from their own children: secondary school deputy head Colin Wall is tormented by his son, Fats, who is determined to live his life as “authentically” as possible, which often seems to consist largely in mocking his father, whose career is all but wrecked by a nervous disorder.
Then there’s Brian Fairbrother’s other great friend, Parminder Jarwanda, the local GP: two of her three children are doing well at school, but daughter Sukhvinder, bullied on Facebook and Twitter by Fats on account of her weight and looks, is falling far behind and is starting to self-harm.
Andrew Price, whose printer father has put himself forward for the council seat because he has been told (wrongly) that it offers rich pickings in terms of kickbacks, has it just as hard: his father not only routinely mocks his acne-covered face, but regularly attacks him with his fists.
Above all, there’s Krystal Weedon. When bourgeois Pagford looks at her, it sees someone it puts its children in private school to get away from. To them, she is The Fields incarnate: promiscuous, insolent to her teachers, violent in and outside the playground. In their rush to judgment, they don’t see how she became like that, how she might only be playing truant to keep her drug- addict mother from the local dealer or, if she has failed to do so , to look after her young brother, Robbie, while her mother is in a heroin haze.
Think back to those Harry Potter books and remember how precisely Rowling charted her characters’ progress through their teenage years. Here, there’s a similar emotional exactitude about those moments in the lives of her Pagford teens when they come closest to real danger, from themselves and from wider society. And this time – because we’re dealing with reality not fantasy – it doesn’t always end happily ever after.
Given Rowling’s phenomenal worldwide success, there will be plenty of critics out there who can’t wait to chip away at her literary reputation. I’m not one of them. Although she is no great stylist – her prose is seldom more than serviceable – her portrait of Pagford has coherence, integrity and, especially in the set-pieces where we see the characters en masse, a delicious interconnectedness.
It is far grittier, bleaker (and, occasionally, funnier) than I had expected, and – the acid test – I suspect it would do well even if its author’s name weren’t JK Rowling.
• The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling is published today by Little, Brown, price £20.