Irvine Welsh meets Joanna Trollope – but it all ends Hogwartsly ever after

Boyd Tonkin gets the first look at JK Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy'

On page 20 of The Casual Vacancy, an adolescent boy has to clutch his bag close to his body on the morning journey to school "to conceal the erection brought on by the heavy vibration of the bus". Like the prisoners at the end of Beethoven's opera Fidelio, who emerge blinking into the sunlight to belt out their chorus of liberation, JK Rowling here hits the first note of her song of freedom. After more than a decade within the gilded cage of the Harry Potter books, and their richly imagined but strictly fenced world of magic and childhood, how – in this first adult novel – will she use it?

The Casual Vacancy, which like that dawdling school bus in a smug West Country town stops to picks up several sets of characters and sub-plots on its route, nonetheless pivots on a simple story of rivalry over a parish-council by-election. The contest proves in the end something of a McGuffin that spurs the action along, rather than a page-turner in itself.

It centres on whether the Fields – a crime-ridden council estate on the edge of this postcard-pretty parish – should remain within Pagford or join the neighbouring city of Yarvil. Before the vote, anonymous posts publicise the hidden shame of leading citizens, their "hypocrisy and lies", on the magic mirror of the parish website. Unaccountably, Rowling chooses to miss this opportunity to ratchet up suspense in a slow-moving plot, since we always know the how and why of every revelation.

This storm-in-teacup election will bring to a head all the festering tensions over class, family and status in a place of secrets, poisoned by "things denied, things hidden and disguised".

Along the way, Rowling draws on her new-found liberty to touch on themes of heroin addiction, prostitution, drug dealing, online porn, self-harm with razor blades, child abuse and the rape of a teenage girl. Motifs that recall Irvine Welsh in his transgressive pomp jostle with the Aga-saga social intrigues of Joanna Trollope – not to mention the Byzantine provincial politics of her Victorian ancestor, Anthony. Hogwarts Academy, initially, feels a million miles away. But, eventually, we will fall back into its emotional orbit.

Barry Fairbrother, beloved stalwart of Pagford parish council, has died of a sudden aneurysm in the golf-club car-park – a bolt from the blue worthy of Voldemort. His surname welds the mislaid virtues of justice and fraternity: Rowling is not above a heavy dose of political symbolism. Barry has risen from the Fields to become both the local bank manager and pillar of the community, free of the snobberies and resentments that toxify the town. So Rowling kills off her true hero at the start – a risky manoeuvre. His ghost, in various ways, will haunt every page.

In a swarming cast, some painted in perspective and others left as broad-brush cartoons, six clans dominate. Obese, bumptious Howard Mollison owns the upscale deli and new café – citadels of pretty-bourgeois pretension – and treats lawyer son Mark as shoo-in for the "casual vacancy" created by Barry's death. Their respective wives, Shirley and Samantha (who runs an outsize -bra shop), embody different generations of female discontent and disempowerment, with plenty of over-egged comedy attached.

In the Old Vicarage live the Jawandas, the Sikh family of GP Parminder (and her scarcely visible heart-surgeon husband). One of Barry's closest allies, Parminder finds narrow-minded "Old Pagford" can never quite forgive her family for their "brownness, cleverness and affluence". But the solitary misery of daughter Sukhvinder means that the parent-child warfare that blights every family in this postcode won't stop at their Victorian door.

Up in their hilltop fortress, the Prices languish under the domestic tyranny of print-works manager Simon, a bullying crook. Young Andrew Price's smart, cool mate Stuart "Fats" Wall, son of the neurotic deputy-headmaster Colin and his guidance-teacher wife Tessa, rules the roost at Winterdown Comprehensive with his teenage existential cult of "authentic" behaviour – however cruel.

Social worker Kay Bawden is an incomer from Hackney unhappily hitched to Mark's partner in the lawyers' office, the dithering Gavin. Her moody daughter Gaia, focus of classroom lust, longs for escape from this "frigging white" semi-rural backwater. And among Kay's clients are the Weedons from the Fields: chaotic, smack-using, on-off prostitute Terri, her ragged little son Robbie, and Krystal, her disruptive, delinquent teenager. Krystal is the most important character here, both a diamond in the rough and Rowling's deliberate revenge on the "chav"-scorning fans of Vicky Pollard.

Krystal, whom Barry befriended and encouraged to become a champion rower, again sports a symbolic name. Foul-mouthed but golden-hearted, decent despite all her deprivations, she represents the despised "underclass" that Pagford – that Britain – writes off at its peril. Her very existence crystallises the character and morality of those around her. She separates the helpers from the wreckers, the sympathetic from the selfish; dare one say, the Wizards from the Muggles?

Rowling's writing, which can be long-winded and laborious in the clunkily satirical set-pieces, picks up passion, verve and even magic with Krystal and the other adolescents. Indeed, the teens of Winterdown belong in a bolder, richer book than some of the parental caricatures. All the social and hormonal turbulence that the later Potter volumes had to veil in the euphemisms of fantasy appear in plain sight here.

Slowed down by its fussy class geography and wheezing plot-motor, the novel builds into a vividly melodramatic climax with these kids at its heart. And after the convulsion comes a sentimental coda that, in tone and setting, whisks us right back to Hogwarts. Even though grudge matches at that school seldom gave rise to insults such as "Bunch o' muff munchers. Le's do 'em."

THE VERDICT

Rowling's writing can be laborious in set-pieces but picks up magic with the adolescent characters

EXTRACT:'THE CASUAL VACANCY'

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."

"Exact-."

"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.

'The Casual Vacancy' by JK Rowling is published by Little, Brown (£20)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker