The Short Version: When Barry Fairbrother, a local parish councilman in Pagford, dies unexpected, it sets off a vicious race to fill his seat. Swept up in it are many residents of the town – some well-off, others quite poor, many with their own trials and tribulations to boot. It’s a big sweeping epic novel of life in a small town.
The Review: What if this book had been the debut of a previously unknown author? Or the first grown-ups book delivered by another, less-famous children’s author? Would the critical response (both in the press and in the populace) have been so tepid? I don’t think so. I know that it’s nearly impossible to consider this book on its own merits – but I’d like to try.
Because this book deserves to be taken on its own merits. It’s a big book about small, ordinary lives – the sort of book that was fantastically popular two hundred years ago, written by folks named Dickens and Eliot and so on, but the sort of book that doesn’t exactly have much of a place in society today. This is perhaps because, as I’ve stated before about my own personal preferences, it’s quite difficult to get a person interested in reading about mundane ordinary “lives of quiet desperation” when we’re all pretty much living those anyway. So Rowling appends a plot to her examination of this tiny English village: the race to fill a town (er, ‘parish’) council seat.
Howard Mollison, big man (both literally and metaphorically) in a small town, has certain delusions of grandeur that can only come from ‘power’ in a small way, accumulating over the course of a life. He wants to get his son, Miles, into the vacant seat – believing that he’ll then have a pretty comfortable chokehold over the council voting, as Barry often ran against him. Two other gentlemen in the town decide to run, although neither quite seems up to it – for various reasons. The stories then spin off from this ‘central’ (I use the term loosely) plot to encompass their wives, lovers, children, friends, children’s friends, co-workers, and other assorted locals about the town. And, in Rowling’s quite capably imaginative hands, a rather amazing painting is created – detailed and nuanced, the sort of thing where only by looking at it for several hours can you start to pull together just how impressively layered the work really is.
There’s no magic here. At least, not the kind so many people were expecting. There’s a little bit of technical magic (although “sufficiently advanced technology may be construed as magic” – this applies to both aliens and older people), I guess. This is a novel about people and life and if you kind find the magic that is, indeed, tucked away inside such a story… you’ll be well-rewarded here. I got to know these people, rather intimately in many cases, over the 500 pages of the book – and every single one of them, whether I liked them or disliked them, was a unique and very real human being. That, to me, is magic – on Rowling’s part.
Her work here truly excels, however, when she deals with children and young adults. This should come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with her work, of course, but the topics addressed might: self-harm, sex, teen pregnancy, drinking and drug use, the inevitable gulf between a child and their parent(s)… it’s some serious shit happening now, a book meant for adults allowing its author to present the world as it is instead of a more magical one (however dangerous that one might’ve been).
Krystal Weedon is perhaps the most remarkable of these young characters – a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, with a junkie mother and a temper, she’s also caring and concerned about her little brother and her friends and just genuinely needed someone to be a parent to her. A scene, near the end of the book, where she desperately seeks a compassionate ear and ends up having to resort to the boy who has shown her some little favor… it’s heartbreaking in and of itself, but I found it to be even more so because this happens. It happens all the time. Just like the relationships, few of which could be considered even remotely approaching the edges of healthy, in this book are all the more believable because these things happen all the time. And so many of these characters just trudge on, marking time til they die.
The plot itself – the council election – doesn’t really do much but provide a sort of MacGuffin. We do see the result and the battle itself incites much of the action, however tangentially, throughout the entire novel – but it doesn’t really matter. I think that’s pretty obvious from the get-go really. It isn’t about the election, it’s about the people involved. And, as I’ve said, the people are incredible in all their (really rather awful) flaws. I can envision Pagford and The Fields so clearly in my mind, I can hear the voices and the sounds of the streets… walk into any village in the middle of England, you’ll see.
But, okay, what about the writing itself, you wonder. Perhaps you read the review, like I did, where a paper of note belittled Rowling’s turn of phrase when she mentions that a character disliked “sudden death” – but what’s worse? What could be worse than dying before you’ve had a chance, maybe, to make your life a little better? Barry Fairbrother was probably the happiest character in this book and he dies within the first five pages – “sudden death”, as she puts it, is immensely unfortunate because you are at least somewhat prepared for the other kind. Regardless of this specific point, you either like Rowling’s writing or you don’t. This has been true since long before she was famous. She has a captivating way with words that, if you let it, will ensorcell you – but if you don’t, if you’re resistant to slightly plummy commentary and sometimes-a-bit-odd metaphors (things which in conversation and real life, I might add, make people inherently more interesting), then you might not get so wrapped up in the story. You might find this ultimately-really-kind-of-depressing novel to be a burden, a true doorstop – “where’s the hopeful wonder?” you might cry to the winds, hoping they’ll float across the ocean and into her ear. But if that’s your problem, then go back to Harry Potter and stay there. Those books will retain their wondrous status no matter how far you roam – or whatever Rowling decides to write next.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Let’s agree to consider this a first novel – because, in many ways, it is just that. In that light, this is a remarkable debut. Full of nuance and overflowing with realism, it’s a sort of magic in its own right. Are there issues here? Yes, certainly: sometimes Rowling’s attempts to come up with a new metaphor do get away with her, sometimes a moment doesn’t quite land like you think it could’ve or should’ve. That happens. But I, for one, am willing to over look such things. To look, instead, to the deftly handled subplots and sub-subplots that could, any of them, have filled a novel by themselves but are instead all woven together here to make a tapestry. THAT’S what this novel is, I now realize: a tapestry, not a painting. The work sometimes is more visible than in the smoothness of a painting – but it is also inherently warmer, more human.
To succeed once, as Ms. Rowling has already done, is a rare feat. To do it again, on an entirely different scale, is even rarer. And to that, I say “Bravo.”