Oh, Jo, what will the children think?
JK Rowling's first novel for adults is an everyday story of country folk who beat their wives, are addicted to drugs and abuse their toddlers. It is a departure that will shock many fans, says Allison Pearson
'Lucky you," said a friend, "getting to read JK's book early. What do you think?"
Even if I could have told her - and I could not because my tongue had been silenced after a powerful spell cast by lawyers - what would I have replied? That I had just read a passage written by the world's favourite children's author in which a teenager is raped by her mother's heroin dealer, a man who may well be the father of the girl's own three-year-old step-brother, although it's hard to know for sure when the mum concerned is a prostitute.
And so, from the pen that brought you The Leaky Cauldron comes this: "His knuckles in her belly as he undid his own flies - she tried to scream and he smacked her across the face - the smell of him was thick in her nostrils as he growled in her ear, 'F***ing shout and I'll cut yer.'" So much for Hermione Granger.
The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling's first adult novel, is sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair. One teenager cuts herself to relieve her misery, another commits suicide. Online pornography is described in gynaecological detail.
The setting is the fictional West Country village of Pagford, and the adult characters seem to be entered in a previously unknown category at the village fete: Most Gratuitously Unpleasant Human Being. It feels as if the author has unleashed all the swearing, sex and vitriol that have been off-limits to her since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in 1997. As for the ending, dear God, it is so howlingly bleak that it makes Thomas Hardy look like PG Wodehouse.
When an interviewer from the New Yorker magazine put it to Rowling that there might be strong objections to the idea of young Harry Potter readers being drawn into such material, she replied coolly: "There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children's babysitter or their teacher. I'm a writer and I will write what I want to write."
If you have sold 450million books, mainly to children, and you have achieved a net worth of £560-million, often from the pocket and birthday money of children, then you may not consider yourself to be their babysitter, or their teacher, but you were certainly their bedtime reading, and they will be helplessly drawn back to your voice. For my kids, and for a billion others, Rowling is a household goddess, the teller of a tale that not only spanned but defined their childhoods.
So great and joyous were Rowling's powers of enchantment that she summoned a whole generation - a generation that had been in danger of being lost to the written word - to the magic circle of books. We are eternally in her debt. No wonder The Casual Vacancy has been as keenly anticipated as Christmas: more than a million pre-orders have been placed, and inevitably some of those customers will be very young. So why has Rowling decided to break the spell, bewildering fans with this uneven, often harrowing book?
Devotees of Jane Austen (Rowling among them) will know the format, if not the characters. The Casual Vacancy switches its attention between a few families in a rural community - Howard Mollison, a right-wing delicatessen owner, Shirley, his status-conscious wife, their solicitor son Miles and his volcanically bored wife Samantha; Parminder, a doctor and parish councillor, and her bullied, self-harming daughter; Ruth, a nurse married to Simon, who beats her and their sons; Colin, a deputy head whose obsessive-compulsive disorder torments him with the idea he has sexually abused his pupils, plus Tessa, his school councillor wife and Fats (Stuart), their wayward adopted son who craves "authenticity" in the form of graveyard sex with Krystal Weedon from the Fields, a nearby estate.
Kay, a social worker recently arrived from London, is the conduit between Pagford's charming cobbled streets and the Fields, whose bucolic name belies a wasteland containing raucously neglected children, indifferent drug-addled parents and a checklist of Broken Britain's ills. When Barry Fairbrother, parish councillor and Good Samaritan, dies in the first chapter, Barry's opponents on the council see this as their chance to fill the vacancy with a sympathetic Nimby and expel the hated Fields, and with it a drug-rehabilitation clinic, from their fragrant borough. In Howard Mollison's view, "Pagford shone with a kind of moral radiance. For him, the town was an ideal, a way of being; a micro-civilisation that stood firmly against national decline".
If you want to picture the Mollisons, cast your minds back to 4 Privet Drive in Little Whinging, Surrey. It was the home of the Dursleys, who locked their orphaned nephew Harry Potter under the stairs to stamp out his wizardry.
With their stifling, smug suburban values, the Dursleys stood for everything Rowling despises, and they are reincarnated here but with extra venom and with a fraction of the fun. Like Vernon and Dudley Dursley, 64-year-old Howard is reactionary and hideously obese: "A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it. How he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed."
This is Rowling on bodkin-sharp comic form in the early pages. I reckon Jane Austen herself would admire the way she shows the news of Barry's death spreading like a virus round Pagford; initial shock or sadness is eclipsed almost instantly by excitement at the opportunities for gossip and scheming that the bad news brings.
After 15 years of invisibility cloaks, Rowling's craving for highly visible realism is understandable. There is one scene where social worker Kay pays a call on Terri, Krystal Weedon's drug-addict mother, and her three-year-old son, naked save for an unchanged nappy. The geological layers of misery are revealed with such skill that you want to climb inside the pages and fetch the child out.
Rowling really knows what she is about here. Kay notes that Terri can remember the precise dosage of methadone she is on, but not the age of her own daughter, "But she had seen far worse; welts and sores, gashes and burns, tar-black bruises; babies lying on carpets covered in dog s***; kids crawling on broken bones." (I shudder to think how this stuff will go down in the States, which adored Harry Potter for its Britishness, and which believes Four Weddings and a Funeral to be a work of documentary realism.)
While Rowling gives due respect to the poorer, damaged characters, higher up the social scale she is busy carving grotesques. Apparently, it's not enough that Howard should be fat, adulterous and Tory; he has to wear a deerstalker at work. A deerstalker in a deli? Really? The pinnacle of misanthropy comes at an awful dinner party given by Miles and Sam Mollison. In vain does the Leftie London social worker pit her bleeding heart against Miles's cheerful country bigotry. "Mississippi mud-pie?" calls a drunken Samantha. All it needs to turn it into Abigail's Party is Demis Roussos on the stereo.
This kind of soapy black farce sits uneasily with the sick fear we find just a few pages away. Andrew, called "Pizza Face" by his father Simon on account of his acne, describes life with a brute who is "a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people".
You actually feel the family breathing in and out when Simon is in "one of those tightly wound moods that often presaged an explosion". I have never read a better account of a family cowering under the iron whim of a domestic tyrant; if Rowling has not known such a figure in her own life then, truly, the woman has magic powers.
Invariably, the author is best when she is back on home ground, dealing with the teenage characters, their inchoate yearnings and lonely friendships. She gets under the skin of Andrew, Krystal and Fats in a way she fails to with the adults, all of whom are unlikeable or annoying, except Barry Fairbrother. And that's cheating, because Barry is dead.
The book is at its weakest when it is most angrily political, satirising what Rowling's friend, Gordon Brown, calls "bigots". And the novel pretty much explodes towards the end, losing shape in its fury at the dirty, unfair England that we Muggles have made for ourselves. It's like The Archers on amyl nitrate.
Some will find that brave and groundbreaking of Rowling, but it's bound to be a shock to others, who loved her old stamping ground with its dormitories and its feasts. In the coming days, along with thousands of parents around the world, I will have to do something that offends our best instincts: I will try to stop my children reading a book.
"Can I read it, Mum?" asked my resident Harry Potter scholar on Sunday afternoon, snuggling closer to get a look at my review copy. "No, you can't." "Why can't I?"
"Because it's full of really dark things and you're too young." "Not worse than Prisoner of Azkaban." "Yes, it's worse." "Why?"
I had to think hard before I answered him. In previous JK Rowling books, there has been evil and death and sadness, but there has also been hope and redemption. At the end of The Casual Vacancy, there is no wand to wave, no spell to make the horror go away. It is pitiless. One child lies dead, another drowned; almost nobody loves anybody else, and the author isn't much kinder. "There's no magic in this book to make it better," I said. "Lots of it is really horrible. I don't want you to read it, darling."
"OK," he said, weighing up my words and jumping off the sofa, "I'm gonna read it."