The Casual Vacancy

By JK Rowling

(Little Brown, R305)

Forget about Harry Potter. Just erase the fact that you ever read any of the books about the boy wizard and his friends versus the dastardly Voldemort and his underlings.

They don’t exist. Don’t look for familiar faces in the sleepy town of Pagford. Don’t be like millions of JK Rowling fans howling and gnashing their teeth because Rowling hasn’t pandered to their need for more Hogwarts.

The Casual Vacancy, although set in a fictional town, is firmly rooted in the world of the Muggles, warts and all.

But I’ll be honest. If it weren’t for the fact that I absolutely adore Rowling’s writing, I probably wouldn’t have picked up The Casual Vacancy.

I’m glad I did, however, because all the reasons why I love her writing were present in her latest offering: memo-rable characters and a narrative that keeps on surprising.

It didn’t bother me that none of the characters were likeable. Nor did I worry about the fact that the novel is jam-packed with horrible things that happen to horrible people. Why? Because it felt real.

And therein lies the rub. Rowling holds the mirror up in The Casual Vacancy, and I don’t think all her readers want to take a closer look. She certainly doesn’t shy away from exposing our fears and our own narrow-minded bigotry in this novel.

I’m sure I won’t be the first to admit that I saw a little something of myself in some the characters. I empathised with Samantha, in denial about the realities of growing older in a joyless marriage; Krystal’s misguided attempts to secure a future for herself and her baby brother Robbie – heart- breaking; and Sukhvinder’s trials at the merciless taunts of bullies – truly frightening.

No character is wholly good or bad, though there are some, like Howard, I loved to hate more than others, and readers are privy not only to charac-ters’ own thoughts and feelings as unreliable narr-ators, but are also allowed to see these same flawed individuals through the eyes of others.

While the petty politicking of the Pagford residents provides the premise for the novel, which reaches its climax at a disastrous meeting, the true meat of the story is realised by the tragedy of the people’s lives and their small, daily cruelties.

But Rowling being who she is, she still allows us a glimpse of hope, despite the crushing misery.