It's a different kind of magic in Rowling's world of sex, drugs and parish halls
Despite the awful descriptions of sex and relentless bleakness, the best-selling author's first adult fiction book retains something of Harry Potter with its overwhelming sympathy for children and teenagers and disdain for the grown-ups, writes Katie Byrne
JK ROWLING loves writing about sex. At least that's the first impression you get from reading The Casual Vacancy.
The Harry Potter author has made the leap into grown-up literature but seems to be obsessed with the description of breasts... and more breasts.
There's an evocative description of a pair in every chapter. A young woman is called TNT by the boys in school "short for 'Tits'n'Tash'." (She certainly nailed the cruelty of the school-going years with that one.). Another has "great big juicy double F mams".
When the schoolboys aren't discussing breasts, the omniscient narrator takes to the task on their behalf. And so we get lines such as: "Revealing the contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms" and "her breasts looked better in a bra these days; they spilled everywhere when she lay down."
She can't help herself.
The Casual Vacancy is set in Pagford, a small English town where everyone knows everyone. Needless to say, all is not what it seems -- expect the literary cliche to which the plot subscribes: white picket fences, dark secrets. You get the story.
When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, there is an empty seat left on the parish council. An election ensues and the private lives of the townspeople are revealed in the process. It's all very sex, drugs and parish hall.
Rowling hasn't strayed too far from the themes of Harry Potter. She's still wildly sympathetic to child characters and at the heart of The Casual Vacancy is a class divide, a modern Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey. The Fields is a sink estate on the outskirts of the quaint abbey town. While the middle-class want to help those who are less fortunate -- "it was classy to volunteer; it was what women did who had no need for extra cash" -- they don't want to integrate with them, and they certainly don't want them in the same schools as their children.
The Casual Vacancy is a socially conscious piece that very much takes the side of children and teenagers. Rowling's troubled youth are all the children of disturbed parents: a heroin-using prostitute; an abusive megalomaniac and an OCD sufferer.
Rowling has an inherent understanding of young people. Whether she wants to admit it or not, she has a very clear message for parents in this book: your behaviour affects your children's behaviour, irrespective of your class.
There is anger between the lines. She says she is not a babysitter, but this book is attempting to be the moral custodian for the ASBO Generation.
One wonders if she's actually aiming it at her Harry Potter readers who have transitioned into teenhood. There are echoes of Adrian Mole here too (well, if Adrian had a penchant for online porn).
Indeed, it is only the teenage characters that she paints with compassion. She cares little for the adults, of whom she is relentlessly disdainful. It is through them that she wants to expose the inner savage, the horrid aspects of humanity, the things we think but never say. One man is described as having "a great apron of stomach that fell so far down his thighs most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him".
But this dark comedy teeters dangerously close to snooty disdain at points. Her portrayal of those living in The Fields estate can be condescending. For instance, there is bile behind the line: "Krystal was hazy on whether or not it was legal, doing your cousin." While the metaplasmus -- "I bin ter see my Nana in hospital this mornin', she's 'ad a stroke" - reads like a hybrid of Vicky Pollard and Dick van Dyke.
Dark comedy constructs have to be somewhat cliched, but some of her characters are just cookie cutter.
This isn't to say that it's not effecting. The irrevocably bleak last act will get you in the solar plexus. By the end of the book, I was left reeling.
Rowling probably won't care what the critics think of her novel. (With over 450 million books sold, she can afford not to.) But there's a sense of bleakness at the heart of The Casual Vacancy that makes you wonder we don't insist on issuing parenting licences, although that is admittedly as fantastical an idea as a Hogwarts School Diploma...