J. K. Rowling's first "post Harry Potter" novel, and her first novel aimed at an adult market, has been eagerly awaited, and the question most readers will be asking themselves as they open the strikingly simply front cover is: "was it worth the wait". The answer very much depends on the reader.
There is no doubt that the author was seeking, in some ways at least, to produce a work as far removed from the world of Hogwarts as it was possible to imagine, and she has certainly succeeded. "The Casual Vacancy" is a study of a slice of modern society, as exemplified by the residents of a small English town who are facing many of the issues that affect society more widely. As a result we come face to face with issues of crime, poverty and drug culture on the local sink estate; and the issues of snobbery, hypocrisy, double standards, and family breakdown in the supposedly more genteel setting of the long established town of Pagford.
What brings matters to a head is the sudden and premature death of Pagford Town Councillor Barry Fairbrother, a man who is mourned by all those around him, at the same time as they seek to use the opportunity presented by his death to further their own political ambitions. The story plays out through the eyes of a fairly long cast list, and as it develops we begin to gain a deeper understanding of what makes some fairly unattractive characters tick. We end up understanding some of them rather better, if not, perhaps, liking many of them much better.
The themes the author develops are universal, and what emerges is a dark and at times gritty portrayal of the sort of place that will be familiar to most of us, and the sorts of issues that confront us every day in the media or in real life. The book is, without doubt, intended for an adult market, but perhaps the most striking aspect for us was the number of important characters who are of school age. As the book progresses, the impression grows that the younger characters are those intended to be the real points of focus of the book. The result, for this reviewer at least, was a sense that although the style and subject matter are worlds removed from "Harry Potter", there are echoes of the earlier series in the theme of young people trying to deal with a strange and sometimes hostile world. And as in "Harry Potter" the result of the younger characters taking their own decisions is always unpredictable, and at times tragic.