It starts with a death, and ends with a chilling tragedy. JK Rowling's first novel for adults, A Casual Vacancy, poses the big question: can she make the transition to writing for grownups? The answer, after whizzing through it in a single day, would have to be a resounding yes.
She cracks briskly into the narrative with the death in a carpark of Barry Fairbrother, a middle-aged nice guy and councillor for the West Country town of Pagford. Barry's death brings all sorts of repercussions: it forces a "casual vacancy" byelection, which initiates some nasty rivalries. And it leaves those who depended on Barry for his practical forms of kindness bereft.
The leadup to the election gives Rowling the opportunity to have a dig at the English class system. The mainly white middle-class citizens of Pagford look down their noses at the residents of The Fields, a filthy council estate rapidly encroaching upon their territory. Not far beyond The Fields is Yarvil, a working-class town also loathed by the Pagfords, and vice versa. The election will give the council the chance to vote on whether Pagford can rid itself of The Fields and associated services, such as a much-needed drug rehab centre.
Rowling steers a large cast which can be loosely divided into a disparate bunch of teenagers and a range of adults, deeply flawed and in some cases, despicable. It's the teens who really shine, especially Krystal Weedon, the 16-year-old daughter of Terri, a junkie described as "simultaneously child-like and ancient" whose squalid sitting room has "no books, no pictures, no photographs, no television".
Krystal, who shelters behind a tough-as-nails carapace and is virtually illiterate, was encouraged by Barry to row for the school team, and proved exceptionally good. Now that he is gone she is vulnerable. One of the most poignant elements is when Rowling weaves in the fuller story of Krystal's and Terri's history, helping us understand why they are what they are, something most of the book's characters fail to do. They prefer to judge.
Krystal's "boyfriend" Fats (who is thin) is a verbal bully and adoptive son of an unstable teacher. Fats is pretentiously in search of the "authentic" in his life, to the extent he'd like to stop talking, something he has almost succeeded in doing to his intimidated parents. And he is not good enough for Krystal.
Fats' friend Andrew (Arf) is the son of one of the council candidates, Simon Price. Simon regularly beats his sons and wife, and steals from his workplace. Then Simon's shortcomings are exposed on the Pagford council website, posted by TheGhostofBarryFairbrother, followed by further scurrilous "news" about other candidates. This is fun; a clever device for making mischief.
One of Rowling's most repulsive adult characters is Howard Mollison, the obese ("a great apron of stomach") council chair and owner of a deli in Pagford. Howard is not averse to patting schoolgirls' bottoms and other pervy deeds later revealed by TheGhost.
While Rowling has great near-satirical play with the adults, the pages really spark when she's inside the heads of Krystal, Fats and Arf. As Fats would say, they're "authentic". So too is that awful climax. I can't recall ever being quite so shaken and saddened by an event in a novel before.
I have one quibble: Rowling's tendency to surround lengthy asides with brackets instead of just inserting them within the narrative. Aside from that, A Casual Vacancy proved to be 503 pages of magic, if from the darker side. Warning: the book contains the "C' word. And it's not "cauldron" as one office wit suggested.
AA Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown $49.99) is out today.
Parminder heard nothing of what the woman said. She had quite forgotten about the stack of papers lying underneath her agenda, on which Kay Bawden had spent so much time: the statistics, the profiles of successful cases, the explanation of the benefits of methadone as against heroin ... Everything around her had become slightly liquid, unreal; she knew that she was going to erupt as she had never erupted in her life, and there was no room to regret it, or to prevent it, or do anything except watch it happen; it was too late, far too late...
"... culture of entitlement," said Aubrey Fawley. "People who have literally not worked a day in their lives."
"And, let's face it," said Howard, "this is a problem with a simple solution. Stop taking the drugs."
He turned, smiling and conciliating, to Parminder. "They call it 'cold turkey', isn't that right, Dr Jawanda?"
"Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?" said Parminder.
"In a nutshell, yes."
"Before they cost the state any more money."
"And you," said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, "do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?"
A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard's neck into his cheeks.