CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The true testament of J.K. Rowling's skill as a writer is not her choice of words or dialogue. (There are parts in all her novels where scenes feel very forced, if not just plain boring.) Rather, it's her ability to create a living, breathing world. Her first novel post-"Potter" shows that she didn't just luck into an idea with that series; she's just a wonderful writer.
The setup to "The Casual Vacancy" sounds very tame. Barry Fairbrother, a man in his early 40s, suddenly drops dead one evening from a brain aneurism, leaving the little town of Pagford in shock. The shock, unfortunately, is less from the effect Barry's death will have on his wife and children and more from the fact that there's an empty seat now open on Pagford's parish council -- the eponymous casual vacancy.
Pagford is a so-called English idyll, but there's more to it than meets the eye. Bubbling under the calm, serene surface is a class war that's pitting families against families, wives against husbands and children against parents. The upcoming election to fill Barry's vacant seat provides a conduit for the secrets and lies of a few key residents.
"Vacancy" is a mammoth 512-page novel, with about 18 main characters, who each have their own subplots in addition to the main story of the town's election. When you count the numerous side characters, it easily brings the count into the mid-20 range.
And there isn't a single one I liked. While they all have a bright moment that displays some sense of a moral compass, they are, for the most part, horrible and wretched human beings.
But then again, aren't we all?
If we were to pull away the illusion of decency and happiness all of us display, what would we find other than feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, greed or lust? Because the characters do have moments that show they're not completely bad and because we are able to get inside their heads and understand their points of view, they never feel like caricatures; they feel human.
Make no mistake, when Rowling said she intended this to be a book for mature audiences, she meant it. There's extremely strong language, drug use, sexual situations and scenes of child abuse. That said, the phrase "mature audience" does not necessarily mean adult; I know middle school students who could easily handle the heavy content and adults who couldn't.If you can handle the dark content of the book, then by all means, I encourage you to read it. It's "Desperate Housewives" meets "Skins" meets "Election." In the same way "Harry Potter" was a masterpiece of fantasy, "The Casual Vacancy" is a masterpiece of realistic fiction.