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."
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."
"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)Reuse content