Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

September 28, 2012

J.K. Rowling tries swearing, sex, small town in unmagical novel

Imagine "Harry Potter" with nothing but Muggles - mean, graceless people without a trace of magic. It would be a dull book indeed.

That, unfortunately, is " The Casual Vacancy," J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults.

The setting is Pagford, a small town in England's West Country. Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council, drops dead in a parking lot on his way to dinner with his wife.

Rowling introduces a cross-section of the town's residents as they learn about Barry's death. There are shopkeepers and lawyers, doctors and teachers, a social worker and a bunch of teenagers. They're variously nasty, deluded, selfish, pompous, petty, neurotic and annoying, and they don't seem to like each other very much.

We also meet a family from the Fields, a public housing estate on the outskirts of town. Terri Weedon is a heroin addict whose 16-year-old daughter, Krystal, can barely string two words together unless one of them has four letters and begins with "F." The Weedons aren't much fun to hang out with, but Krystal turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the book.

The town is divided between those who want the Fields to remain part of Pagford and those who want it split off and reattached to the nearby city of Yarvil.

Barry himself was born in the Fields and wanted the impoverished children living there to have the opportunity he did to attend the lovely Pagford primary school, enjoying "the tiny classes, the rolltop desks, the aged stone building and the lush green playing field."

Several candidates step forward to run for Barry's seat, with varying motives. Much gossip and back-stabbing ensue.

 I'm trying to make this sound enticing, but it's hard.

Not that small-town life can't make fascinating material. Look what Flaubert did with a provincial housewife's unhappiness in "Madame Bovary."

"The Casual Vacancy" never lifts off, though. It seems too obvious to say there's no magic, but Harry Potter aside, every great book needs some alchemy to bring it to life.

You can feel it in "Telegraph Avenue," Michael Chabon's new novel about a couple of cranky, sad-sack record-store owners. Chabon's Oakland has a shimmering reality Pagford never achieves; and while his characters are hardly paragons of virtue, they're sympathetic in a way Rowling's never are.

"Harry Potter," of course, had magic in spades. In addition to reading all the books when they came out, I've read the entire series to my son - twice. The world Rowling created was so enthralling and complex that we practically lived inside it, 

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