The casual vacancy.
I may be unusual amongst reviewers of J.K.Rowling's latest book in that I have never read a Harry Potter story, not being drawn to the celebration of public schools, nor to fantasy stories of wizards and dragons (nor to Tolkien, Wagner, or model railways, but that's another story).
Here we have a further iteration of the English village novel, but in this version not a celebration of the genre, nor of the people or their manners. It is more a full frontal assault on the complacency, hypocrisy , selfishness, narrow-mindedness and sheer unpleasantness of the great majority of the inhabitants of Pagford, somewhere not far from Bristol. I have to confess that for long parts of this book I asked myself the question 'why bother?' Why does the author bother to skewer these people so relentlessly, what animus drives her to spend so much time and effort revealing their nastiness as if we didn't recognise it already? Settling scores? And if so, do we need to be there?
But, and there is a but, JKR brings forward some characters who are rarely encountered, and insists we notice them. Most notable is Krystal, school age daughter of a drug addict, resident of a 'sink estate' as other people in the village would term it, foul mouthed, sexually promiscuous, and the carer of her 3 year old brother. She is both brave and desperately in need of affection. Krystal is one of a range of teenage characters who JKR is able to present persuasively, as if from the inside. Others include Sukhinder, a self-harming Sikh girl, from the only Asian family in the village; Andrew whose crush on Gaia is brought to life with complete conviction, and who brings back vivid memories for the non-teenage reader; Gaia herself, exiled from London by her single parent mother's move from Hackney, privileged by good looks but enraged by her mother's unpleasant boyfriend; and 'Fats', whose lacerating wit covers his unhappy home and hatred of his father. The families that these young people live in are mercilessly exposed by JKR as nests of mutual dislike, infidelity, backstabbing and cruelty. Did Harry Potter go to boarding school? No wonder.
And of the adults only Val the social worker, Parminder the doctor and just possibly Colin the teacher with OCD come out, despite severe personal challenges, as having any sympathetic treatment at all.
There is a problem with the sympathetic treatment, and of its more dominant opposite, contempt. Rowling's authorial presence dominates the narrative, imposing moral judgement, left and right. The narrative is manipulated like a children's story to deliver punishment to the wicked, and then to the innocent as well. Grimness is all. JKR is a moralist who has not yet wholly learned to reveal rather than instruct. At the same time, while most of us walk away from the pain of others- it challenges our own wellbeing and threatens to make demands - JKR walks towards it.
By the end of the book this reader did care, in particular about the children for whom JKR has a special insight, and for the poor, who are so completely p******d on by the comfortably off. There is a wellspring of compassion in this author that is welcome in the world of contemporary fiction. While JKR has joined the super-rich in terms of wealth, she has not joined them in terms of attitude. She does not have to write, unlike in her earlier days as a single parent living on benefits, and is brave to set out after Harry Potter to stake a new claim. I hope she does so again, as she has something to tell us.