First, this is not Harry Potter. Those hoping for a dusting of Dumbledore, a sprinkling of Snape, or even a hint of a Horcrux, will be disappointed. Instead this is a closely examined portrayal of a typical - perhaps mythical - English village, and the consequences that follow on from the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother.
The author J K Rowling has said it is a very personal book, a book she "needed to write": it is also a profoundly political novel, surprising and controversial. It is a radical departure for the writer, and will redefine her image. In short, it is about living under the Coalition, with Voldemort recast as the "Big Society". Some will call it a satire but it is not comic. The final chapters left me cold, and I don't mean that as a criticism.
The stage is small, deliberately so. All of the action takes place in the little town of Pagford where, as one character remarks, "everyone truly did know everyone". But small the imagination is not. Rowling has packed her first book for adults with a troupe of characters and a narrative that is deeply complex and intertwined. Nothing happens without a consequence, a message that is central to Rowling's novelistic manifesto.
The literal "vacancy" of the novel's title is provided by Fairbrother, a local parish councillor, who lasts all of three pages before he is not-so-casually shuffled off the stage. Yet Fairbrother casts a long shadow over the remaining 500 pages: he is the focal point of the book and his absence provides the void from which all the remaining characters suffer. He
is also the conduit between Pagford and the looming menace of The Fields, a
council estate that the residents of Pagford are attempting to pass off to
the larger conurbation of Yarvil. In Swiftian fashion, the Pagfordians are
said to fear the encroaching Yarvils, with The Fields the physical
manifestation of that menace.
It is of course impossible to think of the new book without reference to the
children's titles. This is not a Harry Potter but it is a J K Rowling. The writing is rich and colourful and at times luxuriant, and, yes, occasionally it is clumsy. The backdrop of the book will be familiar too, two worlds colliding and competing for prominence, with Fairbrother cast as a lost stabilizing force: in this novel Dumbledore dies on page 3. Death overshadows this book, as it did all seven of the Potter titles.
Unlike Potter though there is no redemption, no overarching ministry of
magic to marshal the world into some kind of order: the vacancy of that is
another of Rowling's themes. The denizens of Pagford are falling apart, and
fallen apart. They become victims of malicious online gossip, while averting
their gazes from the wider tragedies among them. In Rowling's bleak vision,
none of them are guiltless.
Rowling once again shows her deftness at introducing even minor players with
substance: it has been remarked of the Harry Potter novels that Rowling knew
exactly what her people were doing even when they were off-page (a vision
now being explored through Pottermore) and one can imagine a similar
attention to detail at work here. In fact, it is clear from the many
digressions that crop up within the book that there are back stories
a-plenty. Some of the characters will be vaguely familiar to Pottermaniacs:
one can see the younger Bellatrix Lestrange in the Vicky Pollard character,
the improbably named Krystal Weedon; Fats Wall could have been Vincent Crabb
in another world; with Andrew Price a Weasley. But in truth, the overlaps
are slight - if they came out of the world of Potter, these versions have
been given a reality check by Rowling's pen.
The influences are not hard to fathom. Rowling has written a excoriating
critique of English life, channelling Charles Dickens, David Cameron,
Charlotte Bronte, and Danny Boyle. Although the latter's Olympics opening
ceremony would have come too late to colour this book, there is an
overlapping of visions. For Boyle, Britain was a developing industrialized
landscape made out of clay and grass, blessed by achievers from Isambard
Kingdom Brunel to the founders of the NHS. For Rowling it is a
claustrophobic congregation caught in a callous disregard for their own
community needs, perhaps only dimly aware that their connectivity is what
could make them functional - if only they had a care.
How the book will sell is a moot point. It is an important book that could
speak to many communities, and not just in Britain. It is unclassifiable,
not quite literary enough to sit within that canon, but not a genre book
either. It could also prove to be incredibly controversial. On the BBC Radio
4 "Today" programme (26th September), Rowling said the book tackled broad
themes which had impacted her life, such as poverty. "There is a whiff of
the early 90s, how these issues are being discussed right now, and it is
painfully familiar to me. In hard times the desire to stigmatise and to
blame seems to become ever stronger." There is no question, from reading the
book, who she blames for that and it is hard to imagine members
of the current Coalition reading it without a grimace.
Rowling has written a grand novel about a little community where David
Cameron's sop of the Big Society has been found out: no casual vacancy this,
but a damning one. It is a very brave book, and one that will alter people's
perceptions of her as a writer.