This is J K Rowling’s first foray into the world of novels for adults. After the phenomenal success of her Harry Potter series, anything by J K Rowling was bound to attract an overload of attention. I have never been much attracted by the Harry Potter books or films, but that did not put me off trying her offering for adults. The Casual Vacancy is a very funny and witty exposition of the pettiness and meanness at the heart of life in provincial England. Set in the imaginary town of Pagford, somewhere in the West country, the catalyst for the story is the sudden death of local luminary Barry Fairbrother. This prompts an unscheduled election to the parish council, hence the title of the novel. An election campaign, even for a parish council allows Rowling to open the lid on a seething can of worms – the personal animosities among the council members and the social gulf between the middle class town and its council housing estate. There is a slight whiff of Jane Austen in Rowling’s tale, in as much as the people of Pagford seem to be solely motivated by their own little insular world and oblivious to what is happening in the wider world. The novel could have been subtitled the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, though there are precious few good people in Pagford. Most are pretty nasty and lacking in any feelings of empathy for their fellow citizens. Most of the characters are primarily interested in feathering their own nest and inflicting disgrace and suffering on their enemies. Though the novel is mainly about adults, Rowling has not forgotten children completely. Teenagers in particular feature prominently in the tale and most of them behave just as badly as their elders.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I listened to in the audio version, read by the wonderful Tom Hollander, who was able to voice to perfection the moral vacuousness at the heart of the characters. My one slight criticism of the book is its length. The audio version has 15 CDs, so it is a pretty long book. Though there are a couple of narrative strands to the tale, this is primarily a black comedy of manners. As such there was a bit of repetition of the foibles and weakness of some of the characters. Did not spoil the novel and should not put anyone off reading or listening to it.