An employee at Foyles bookshop arranges copies of JK Rowling's latest novel 'The Casual Vacancy' which has gone on sale today starting at 8:00 am on September 27, 2012 in London, England. 'The Casual Vacancy' is JK Rowling's first book aimed at an adult readership and is centered on a parish council election in a small West Country town. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY
J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - her first novel for an adult-only audience - shows that she is a writer willing to take chances. This is a courageous departure for Harry Potter's creator.
Unfortunately, The Casual Vacancy reads less like a work of fiction and more like a plea for Britain's comfortable middle-class Muggles to be more aware of the obstacles faced by poor children growing up in dysfunctional homes.
The Casual Vacancy centers on the battle for the soul of a little town in England called Pagford. Physically, it's a jewel with a ruined abbey, a historic pub, and a steady stream of tourists. But to some in Pagford, this treasure is marred by "the Fields," a housing project whose residents struggle with crime, drugs, welfare dependency and unstable families.
This issue had long divided the Pagford parish council. One faction wants to foist "the Fields" onto a neighboring city. (Shutting down a center for addicts is another goal.) Barry Fairbrother, having grown up in "the Fields," opposes this group. After Barry drops dead in the opening pages of the book, he leaves behind an empty seat.
The popular and good-hearted Fairbrother also left behind a legacy of kindness. His friends included a tormented assistant school principal with a difficult son, a Sikh woman doctor on the parish council, and, most central - Krystal Weedon. The daughter of a drug addict with various siblings already placed in foster homes, she is part of an infamous clan of ne'er do wells. But Fairbrother, who coached her on a rowing team, saw her sparkle, grit and talent.
As people vie for Barry's seat, Rowling depicts a world of misery at every economic level: Abusive fathers, suicidal teenagers, adulterous husbands. (The Casual Vacancy is not for children or adult readers who don't enjoy dark, gritty drama.)
Rowling lets her agenda drive not just the plot but the characters. The ones who come alive are those sympathetic to "the Fields," i.e., liberals. Those who criticize the residents, i.e., conservatives, are cliched variations of Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.
And the poor characters, such as Krystal's drug-addict mother, seem like social pathologies rather than human beings.