The comedy gets dark in J.K. Rowling's novel for adults

Tampa Bay TimesOctober 7, 2012 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'The Casual Vacancy'

    By J.K. Rowling

    Little, Brown. 503 pp. $35.

With her seven Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling made millions of kids (and grown-ups) wish they lived at Hogwarts.

In 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows completed the series that transformed the children's book industry, sold 450 million copies worldwide and spawned movies, theme parks, Web sites and more — and made Rowling a billionaire.

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's first novel in five years and her first for adult readers, is a fine and fascinating read, but it is not for children, and it will most emphatically not make you want to live in Pagford.

That's the name of the quaint English town where The Casual Vacancy is set. No dragons or Quidditch here; this is a world where Facebook and Rihanna's Umbrella play roles in the story.

The plot kicks off when Barry Fairbrother, a member of Pagford's parish council, drops dead of an aneurysm in a parking lot on his anniversary. His death leaves an opening on the council (the book's title is the term for such an event) and the campaign for the spot proves the old truism that power struggles are most vicious when there is the least at stake.

Barry's death leaves many people shocked and forlorn — his wife and their four children; his close friend Colin Wall, the local high school's assistant headmaster; Parminder Jawanda, a doctor who served on the council with him and shared an emotional connection she doesn't have with her husband; and especially Krystal Weedon, a profane, promiscuous girl who responded to Barry's mentoring.

But there are others who are secretly happy he's gone, notably Howard Mollison, a deli owner and head of the council. He and Barry were opponents on the question of the Fields, an area of slum housing on one edge of Pagford (and Krystal's home). Barry thinks its residents are the town's responsibility, Howard wants to let a neighboring city deal with them.

There's plenty of sharp political satire in The Casual Vacancy. Its candidates don't have super PACs, so they rely on rumor and innuendo — until someone starts hacking the council's Web site as the "Ghost of Barry Fairbrother" to spread the dirt.

But Rowling is working on a broader canvas. The Casual Vacancy recalls the work of such 19th-century novelists as Charles Dickens with its large but vividly drawn cast that ranges across social classes and ages. The book is, among other things, a comedy of manners — it turns out that, despite all those years among the wizards, Rowling has a gimlet eye for the bad behavior of non-wand-bearing folk.

But as the book's complex, compelling plot develops, that comedy gets darker. It's a plot powered by "things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised," and it revolves around families.

Most of the characters in the Potter books are teenagers, and so are many of the most important characters here. But, unlike the Hogwarts kids, these are teenagers in the bosoms of their families — and in bitter contention with them.

She also creates here characters who are more complicated, and much harder to peg as good guys or bad ones, than those in the Potter books. Rowling tells the story through many different points of view, and as a result our perception of every character changes as new aspects are revealed. Almost every one of them does terrible things and admirable things, and we come to understand why.

At one point an exasperated wife thinks of her husband, "He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own."

Not Rowling. In The Casual Vacancy, she sails right into those sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking hinterlands. It's a trip worth making.

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