When beginning The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, readers would be best advised to drop their expectations and instead pick up a pen and paper. The opening pages unfold as a series of introductions to more than 20 residents of the town of Pagford, in England’s West Country, and you may need a chart to keep up with the interconnected cast. The story starts shortly after the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a kindhearted member of the parish council. The townspeople’s reactions range from devastation and bewilderment to opportunistic scheming. Who in this group will take over Barry’s spot on the council? Termed a “casual vacancy,” this political opportunity is thought of as more than an empty space. It is a “magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.”

Some readers may think that any mention of magic is pure cruelty on Rowling’s part. Unlike Harry Potter, who is whisked from his awful home on Privet Drive to fight a bigger battle from Hogwarts, the characters in The Casual Vacancy must stay and duke it out in their own neighborhood, with only the aid of sharp tongues and fists. (Unlike Harry Potter, the people of Pagford do know how to use a computer.) But even though some of these personalities seem to channel Harry’s most unappealing acquaintances—Crabbe and Goyle (oafish cronies of Harry’s arch-nemesis), Vernon Dursley (Harry’s heartless guardian) and Rita Skeeter (truth-bending journalist) come to mind—it is impossible not to become engrossed in their insulated drama. Rowling is a master at fleshing out characters and describing their world, and she takes her time, examining moral dilemmas and town gossip from multiple points of view. Though it does not include spells and sparks, the climax of The Casual Vacancy is wrenching. We have come to know these characters and to root for them. Even though they are flawed—and some are repulsive—it is painful to watch them fall. Readers often want stories that “transport” them. The Casual Vacancy is a difficult read because it transports us to a sad and serious reality. The only fantasy here is the characters’ wish for a better life.

After Barry Fairbrother dies, there is one pressing reason why the people of Pagford are eager to name his replacement on the parish council: Barry was an advocate for the Fields (a public housing estate) and a nearby addiction clinic. With Barry out of the picture, Howard Mollison, the leader of the parish council, hopes to rid Pagford of the Fields and the clinic once and for all. He rallies for his son to run for Barry’s spot. On the other side is Colin Wall, deputy headmaster of the local school and Barry’s best friend. He feels a duty to run for the seat and complete his friend’s work.

The only fantasy here is the characters’ wish for a better life.

The Weedon family provides a close-up view of life in the Fields. Krystal Weedon, the 16-year-old daughter of the family, was well-liked by Barry, who coached her rowing team and believed in her in spite of her tough exterior. Though she heroically tries to keep her family together—her mother’s heroin addiction threatens to send Krystal and her young brother to foster care—Krystal is a symbol for the more genteel people of Pagford: She is a brash and ill-behaved example of how poverty poisons a middle-class town, especially when kids of drastically different backgrounds are able to go to school together. Many townspeople would rather wash their hands of the addicts and troublemakers from the Fields. In the midst of a charged presidential campaign in the United States that often pits the “haves” against the “have-nots,” the arguments against government assistance programs will sound all too familiar: These people are lazy, and these programs will never make a difference. Rowling’s characters fall on all different sides of this argument, and—true to life—there is no lasting solution.

Many of the scenes in The Casual Vacancy are heartbreaking, both extreme (rape, self-mutilation, domestic abuse) and mundane (parents who belittle their already self-loathing children). The cast of characters can be drawn into two categories—the parents and their teenage children—and it is the hardships of the kids that hurt the most. Fortunately, there are darkly funny moments, too, from the absurdity of small-town minutia to disastrous dinner parties. At more than 500 pages, the novel tends to drag in the middle—bogged down by parenthetical asides and the sheer weight of keeping up with so many characters. But the payoff is in the satisfying conclusion. It isn’t magical, but people do change. In a novel filled with so much fretting and despair, that is welcome news, indeed.

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