The premature death of Barry Fairbrother, a deservedly popular parish councillor for the rural town of Pagford, has a more significant impact than any of its inhabitants would have thought when Barry first collapses on his way out to dinner with his wife Mary. The occasional clunkiness of JK Rowling's style is never more apparent than when she is writing plot-important action, and this novel stutters awkwardly into life with its cliched description of Barry's last moments: 'Barry was lying motionless and unresponsive on the ground in a pool of his own vomit; Mary was crouching beneath him, the knees of her tights ripped, clutching his hand, sobbing and whispering his name.' However, it is Rowling's treatment of Barry's legacy that was one of the major factors in convincing me that this is an appealing, engrossing and meaningful work of fiction, despite its flaws. Although Barry narrates only the first two and a half pages of this long novel, his example serves as a refreshing contrast to the indifference and spite that most of the inhabitants of Pagford display at one point or another. Importantly, though, Rowling does not lazily depict Barry as an absent saint, but is careful to let us know exactly why Barry could do what he did and why it is so difficult for anyone to follow in his footsteps. I was reminded that Rowling trained as a teacher when one of Barry's colleagues makes this pitch-perfect observation: 'What was it that Barry had had? He was always so present, so natural, so entirely without self-consciousness. Teenagers, Tessa knew, were riven with the fear of ridicule. Those who were without it, and God knew there were few enough of them in the adult world, had natural authority among the young; they ought to be forced to teach.'
The reason I found this passage so resonant, I think, is that not only is it completely accurate about the qualities you need to work with young people, but because it is clear by this point in the novel that most of the harm in Pagford comes about because the characters are so afraid. Gavin, dating a kind and intelligent social worker, Kay, has encouraged her to uproot herself and her daughter from their London life then treated her with indifference since because he is too scared to tell her he does not love her. Sukhvinder, a teenage girl from the town's only Sikh family, is so terrified of letting her parents down and what to do about the cyberbulling she is suffering via Facebook that she takes to cutting herself. Samantha, owner of a failing bra shop and participant in a failing marriage, is so unable to face up to her financial difficulties and all the things she cannot say to her husband that she takes to fantasising about a teenage boy from the latest hit boy band. And most tragically of all, Krystal, a sixteen-year-old who is struggling to hold her family together as her mother battles with heroin addiction and social services threaten to take her small brother Robbie into care, is so frightened of the future that she unwittingly sets off a train of events that will make things even worse.
When I began this novel, I feared that Rowling had not played to her strengths, so determined to demonstrate that she had moved on from Harry Potter that this story would flop, but surprisingly, she leaves herself ample space to do what she is best at. Although this is not a plot-driven novel, Rowling's skill at handling multiple threads comes in increasingly handy as the narrative becomes more complex and small details from one character's story become crucial to another's. Her ability to create memorable characters that the reader cares about strongly is also evident. Although her characters are not exactly complex - even the individuals who get the most screen time, like Krystal, do not really develop - they are more than sketches. Most peculiarly, Rowling's skill at creating a world that the reader wants to continue living in, that they do not want to end, is a major factor in making this overlong novel gripping. This is peculiar because nobody wants to live in a town like Pagford - Rowling effectively skewers its narrow-mindedness and bigotry throughout - and yet this novel never becomes depressing, even throughout its melodramatic ending. In a way, putting the central plotline aside, Rowling does stick to form by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, and perhaps this is why this studiously 'realistic' novel is more satisfying than it ought to be.
This isn't a novel that does anything terribly original, but it solidly delivers on what it promises, and manages to make local politics much more interesting than earlier models of this 'slice of life' narrative - Winifred Holtby's South Riding comes to mind - have achieved. I'm now keen to read Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling, as I think she may find an even more natural home in crime fiction; and I'd like to escape to another of her worlds.