IWAS never totally convinced by Harry Potter. Evil was a little too obvious – it would appear with a theatrical dimming of the lights, dominating, cruel and selfish. And good was too obviously good. JK Rowling likes to neatly marshal her leading actors, and to draw her readers along a pre-determined path towards an inevitable end. Of course, the magic of her imagination is wonderful and inventive, but her characters and story have often felt a little predictable.
I was excited to see whether her first attempt at adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy, could carry an original story without the cushion of wizards and magic. Set in the village of Pagford – rather like Agatha Christie’s later imaginings of St Mary Meade, in her Miss Marple books – the story centres on a battle over an empty seat on the parish council. It’s the latest in a long line of novels to unpick the tensions wrestling under the surface of peaceful English life.
This doesn’t mean comedic scuffles over bake sales and charity raffles. It’s a gritty book, even grubby. The plot starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother (the hero or anti-hero, depending on your view), who collapses in the golf club car park after a brain aneurysm. And, although Rowling returns to her perennial favourite subject – the growing pains of teenagers – this adult novel is more concerned with crude sexual development than accidents with over-powerful charm potions.
In some ways, The Casual Vacancy is disappointing. Others have looked at village life and left the reader pleasingly uncertain over who should triumph and who should be routed. And the central plotline – whether an unfortunate council estate should be the responsibility of pretty Pagford or a larger nearby town – arranges the characters onto two stereotypical sides of a fairly dull debate. Not everyone who lives on a sink estate speaks like a Dickensian pickpocket. Not everyone who questions their responsibility for drug addicts is snobbish or ignorant.
But Rowling makes it clear who we should hate. They’re the gossips, the monarchists, those without university education, vain people, proud shopkeepers, petty local officials, and curtain twitchers. The best of Pagford have a reliably broad idea of what constitutes community. Howard Mollison – the obese delicatessen owner and enemy of progress – is obviously bad because Rowling implies he reads the Daily Mail.
As befits one of the Labour Party’s most famous supporters, Rowling’s weakness is in her view of property. If you own a nice house, shouldn’t you let your neighbourhood change to make the less fortunate happy? If you’ve worked hard to build a business, shouldn’t you give some up for others? Most have a more nuanced understanding of this debate, but the immensely rich Rowling is dogmatically political.
The Casual Vacancy isn’t a weak book. Much of it is funny, even witty, and there are glimpses of Rowling’s interesting personal story. But I ended up liking her villains and hating her heroes. Even Daily Mail readers deserve some sympathy.
Tom Welsh is business features writer at City A.M. The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling is out now.