So is the most anticipated novel of the year any good? Well, it’s hugely enjoyable. I laughed. I cried. But by the end I felt a bit manipulated. In the end it’s a politically-motivated sledgehammer of a novel with a liberal message which verges on the self-righteous. But until it gets to that bit there’s a lot of fun. Listen to my review for the BBC World Service’s The Strand’s 40 million listeners here. Read the verdict in Red here (also reprinted below). And a rant about all the effing and blinding in the novel in the Mail on Sunday here.
It turns out that JK Rowling is not the greatest writer ever to have lived. But she is possibly one of the greatest storytellers. Which is how she can just about get away with this rather odd – and very British (too British?) – tale seemingly hinged on a parish council election but actually dealing with much deeper and more serious themes.
When the liberal, much-loved Barry Fairbrother collapses with a fatal aneurysm, half the population of the rural village of Pagford appears to be queuing up to take his seat — “The Casual Vacancy” — on the local council. The key contenders? Barry’s rival the porky deli owner Howard, who is lining up his son Miles to take the position. And local nasty-piece-of-work Simon Price also has his eye on the seat.
There are parallels with Harry Potter here when it transpires that although this is an adult novel (with occasionally alarmingly adult themes – and language – it’s already peppered with four-letter words by page 15), it’s really the children who are in charge. Or at least they think they are. Because whilst the grown-ups squabble over who’s going to win the election, a mystery team of teenage hackers is busy tampering with the Pangford Council website and denting all their chances.
The plot seems to hang on the slapstick business of a local election but really this is a socio-political morality tale about hypocrisy, snobbery, class and drug addiction. The locals are all forced to show their true colours when the local centre which hands out methadone is threatened with closure.
It’s a far-reaching and ambitious novel with a cast of characters as rich as any Harry Potter outing but with a gritty realism worthy of Ian Rankin crossed with the ambiguous tone of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. It’s not exactly subtle with its finger-wagging liberal politics, though. And, whilst the first two thirds are playful and often wonderfully comic, the ending packs an uncomfortably vicious, moral, sideways punch.
As you’d expect, it’s hugely readable and draws you irresistibly in. And it’s a must-read because everyone will be talking about it. But don’t expect this book to change your life in quite the way it has changed the author’s.