The first thing to say about The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first novel for so-called adults, is that’s it’s long, too long perhaps. The British edition runs to 503 pages, not all of which sing.

The second is that it is not the kind of novel that many parents will be eager to thrust into the hands of those whom they were delirious to watch read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The third is that, whatever its faults, it is a brave and, to some extent, ambitious piece of work, which is frequently funny but which more often paints a grim portrait of a country that seems hardly to appreciate the trouble it’s in.

It is set in the English West Country, in a bijou village called Pagford. On the surface, it is an idyll, the kind of place viewers of daytime television are apparently eager to inhabit. It has cobbled streets, a crumbling abbey, a pub and a deli, all prerequisites for those intent on avoiding inner-city shenanigans.

Rowling has spoken of wanting to write a 19th century novel for the 21st century, and there are undoubtedly echoes of the likes of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. While, in Gaskell’s day, rural England was beset with rampant industrialisation and depopulation, what threatens to engulf Pagford is less easy to identify. Like so many similar towns, it seems simply to suffer from some undiagnosable modern malaise.

The novel begins with the sudden and melodramatic death of Barry Fairbrother, whose ghost nevertheless haunts it throughout. Barry was a parish councillor and his demise in his forties leaves the vacancy referred to in Rowling’s title.

At issue is a sink estate known as the Fields, which lies on the outskirts of a larger, meaner, neighbouring town called Yarvil, the seat of the local county council. For historical reasons, kids from the Fields are allowed to go to primary school in Pagford, which also houses a drug addiction clinic.

With enlightened, liberal Barry gone, Conservative councillors, principally Howard Mollison, owner of the aforementioned deli, see an opportunity to rid Pagford of these sores and restore its postcard image.

This is an interesting, even intriguing scenario. But it is not new. English fiction is replete with novels with similar settings and similar characters, among the most recent being Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers, published last year.

Rowling’s grasp of her material may not be as assured as Hensher’s but where she scores is in her full-blooded, unflinching and unsentimental account of what life is like on these islands now, particularly for children.

The character to whom she shows most sympathy is Krystal Weedon, whose name really says it all. Krystal’s mother is addicted to heroin and incapable of looking after her infant son, whose father is unknown. In the course of the novel Krystal is raped by her mother’s dealer and reckons that the only route out of her predicament is to get herself pregnant.

Moreover, she talks like a bumpkin who’s watched too many episodes of The Wire which, incidentally, she hasn’t, because her mother’s sold everything to feed her habit. That no-one else in the novel speaks like her is odd. Do only the marginalised curse like footballers and leave words unfinished?

Krystal, however, is resourceful, and possessed of talent as a rower, which Barry Fairbrother was alone in identifying. Here, you sense, Rowling is communicating a not-so-subtle message, that our treatment of kids is a cancer only we can cure.

There are scenes in The Casual Vacancy which could have come from EastEnders rather than The Archers, including one in which a father beats up not only his wife but his two sons. He, needless to say, sees himself as a victim. Forget fantasy; this is abusive, inescapable, raw reality.

The plot – such as it is – unfolds over seven parts, a number Rowling appears obsessed with. Each part is sub-divided into several further parts, allowing the author to introduce and develop characters, of whom there are many.

One of the best drawn is Shirley, Howard’s wife, who runs a bra shop for busty women and who, when tipsy, is inclined to be crude and abrasive. Sexually frustrated, she takes to watching her daughter’s DVDs of gyrating rock stars, an irony few readers will miss.

There is much, therefore, to enjoy in The Casual Vacancy. What lets it down, however, is the quality of Rowling’s prose (“Disgust rose in Samantha like vomit” ... “A pause rolled across the table like a fresh tablecloth...”) and the unevenness of her wit. In short, it is a perfectly decent novel by an indecently successful writer.

The Casual Vacancy is published by Little, Brown

Other reviews of The Casual Vacancy