JK Rowling knows how to write a decent battle between good and evil, with or without wizards. It may be dull in parts, predictable in others, overlong at 503 pages, mostly very bleak, fairly didactic, prone to clunky lines and creative punctuation the editor should have coaxed out of it, and richly peopled with stereotypes, but Rowling's first adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, $49.99), is far from a disaster, thanks to the Harry Potter author's innate storytelling skills, her talent for creating a world readers care about, and her ability to touch and move them.
Set in the fictional English town of Pagford, the story centres round the battle for a vacant seat on the parish council created by the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother. Hardly a dramatic plotline you might think but, although at first glimpse Pagford may seem an idyllic spot, the truth is it's seething with social issues, not to mention rivalries, jealousies, bitterness and troubled teenagers.
Rowling peoples Pagford with a mix of middle-class snoots, working-class victims and do-gooders. There are a lot of characters in this story, few of them likeable. One of the most noxious is obese delicatessen owner Howard Mollison, who had been in the midst of a political battle with the deceased councillor over plans for a boundary change that might achieve his dream of Pagford cutting loose the local sink estate. The Fields is a ghetto of petty crime and drug addiction. With Barry gone, Howard sees his chance to draft in a new councillor sympathetic to his cause, and make the place someone else's problem.
This would be the worst kind of news for another of the novel's main characters, Krystal Weedon, the loudmouthed daughter of one of The Fields' more chronic drug addicts. Despite her slutty ways, Krystal is a nice girl and takes care of her little brother and helps keep Mum off drugs. Being able to attend Pagford's high-decile school is one of the few bright points in her grim existence. Still it seems her cause is a hopeless one without charismatic, compassionate Fairbrother on her side.
The battle heats up when defamatory statements begin appearing on the message board of the parish council website, revealing shocking secrets about some of the town's inhabitants. Gradually the story builds towards tragedy for some, redemption for a very few.
You can criticise Rowling's style but surely not her conviction. Aware she has the eyeballs of readers around the world, she has chosen to write a story that exposes the uglier side of England, no holds barred.
There are some big, tough themes here: rape, drug addiction, poverty, wife beating, the gradual withdrawing of society's helping hand. There's a character with an obsessive compulsive disorder, another who cuts herself. And Rowling seems especially skilled at understanding the bewildering inner lives of teenagers.
To cram in so many social issues and carefully drawn characters while still propelling the narrative forwards is an achievement. But the real secret of Rowling's success is her ability to involve readers in the story and I'll admit there were tears in my eyes as I read the final sad, dramatic chapters.
I suspect The Casual Vacancy will be loved and loathed by its readers. But be warned this is an adult novel - with sexual content and cursing - so if the kids are Potter fans be sure to keep them clear of it.