'CASUAL' READ The novel pins you down with its heavy heap of unpleasant topics

Nobody, it seems, says no to publishing’s shiniest superstar. After selling 450 million copies of her justly beloved Harry Potter books, Rowling could pen a Proust-size ode to her toenails and editors would line up to publish it. She wrote a 500-page novel for grown-ups? Great! It’s got sex and heroin and characters who say things like ”you useless f—in’ smackhead cow”? Uh, okay. It’s about buffoons bickering over a minor government job in rural England? Huh. If you say so…

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s overlong but often entertaining debut adult novel, is a big book that follows small people jockeying for a little position in tiny Pagford. When one of the community’s 16 parish councillors dies, a bunch of town notables try to use the ensuing ”casual vacancy” to pursue various agendas. Rowling does a nice job laying out her characters’ pretensions and weaknesses, which she punctures with gleeful flicks of a sharp comic blade.

But mixed in with this cutting comedy is a more serious book that tackles questions of class, poverty, and politics, and it’s here that The Casual Vacancy falters. Some of Pagford’s residents want to fob a housing project off on neighboring Yarvil, and whoever fills the open seat could influence the council’s decision. Rowling offers a convincing portrait of underclass misery, but she gets lost in the details of a who-cares election that boils down to a contest among equally disagreeable candidates. ”So will voters go for the c–t,” as one character puts it, ”or the t–t?”

Rowling seems determined to distance herself from the innocent pleasures of wizards and Quidditch, and The Casual Vacancy piles on the unpleasantness — rape, child abuse, suicide, self-mutilation, mental illness. It’s all just too much: When the novel finally arrives at its predictable and heavy-handed ending, what started as a lively comedy of manners has turned into an overwrought slog. B-

The Casual Vacancy (Book)
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