J.K. Rowling's awaited first novel for adults, THE CASUAL VACANCY, is a surprise. Several surprises, not all good. But not all bad, either.
The first surprise is how grim the book is. Pagford is a picturesque English country village, something Jane Austen might have used as a setting. Beside it, however, is an extension of the city of Yarvil, a depressed area called "the Fields" that mostly consists of slums, out-of-work inhabitants, and a methadone clinic. The Pagford Parish Council is divided on whether or not they should redraw boundaries to hand the Fields back to Yarvil and close the clinic (which is renting a building owned by Pagford), or instead try to help--with money and scholarships-- the disadvantaged inhabitants of the Fields. In Chapter 1, a key member of the council dies, and the vacancy leads to an election that ends up exposing everyone's deepest secrets and personal bad behavior.
And it IS bad. I didn't expect Harry Potter-type buoyancy and heroism, but nearly every character in THE CASUAL VACANCY is unpleasant, taking most of their pleasure from others' weaknesses, failures, frustrations, and pain. Nearly every one! These are not merely flawed characters; they are petty and actively vindictive. And some are worse than that, including a man who beats his wife and kids, a crack addict who neglects her children, cyberbullies, and three--not one but three--teenagers who cruelly and publicly humiliate their parents. And one character, Krystal, is so wrenching that the only possible response to her is a painful pity.
By the end of the book, some of these characters have repented and reformed, but this is unfortunately the book's greatest weakness: I didn't believe some of these character changes. They did not seem to me adequately prepared for.
The second surprise, however, was that despite all of the above, I could not put the book down. The writing is good. More, the story kept me enthralled to see what would happen next and how the various plot lines would turn out. I neglected a lot of other things I was supposed to be doing in order to finish this novel.
Rowling has moved a long way from what Jane Austen would have done with an English village. Masterly Jane knew that every setting has at least a few moments of joy, at least a few relationships that are tender, at least some people who strive for higher standards of behavior. Rowling has said that some of her book came from her own life and the lives she observed before she became famous. If so, her upbringing must have been a doozie.
Still--I read, I read compulsively, and I believed her characters. I just wish they hadn't been the only inhabitants we meet in Pagford.