This is a bit of a trojan horse of a book – ostensibly about middle England’s parochial concerns about a vacancy on the parish council of a small town in the West Country, this novel actually addresses a wide range of social issues, from self harm, racism, prostitution, domestic violence, etc, etc. Its like an episode of the Archers on crack.

The litmus test, as always, is was it a good read? The change of style from the Hogwarts novels is dramatic, and takes time to adjust. We then have a large cast of broadly similar characters doing largely similar things. Sorting out who is who takes a while. The election, when it finally comes, is a damp squib (ha ha, Hogwarts joke there for you) and some of the more melodramatic plot twists are telegraphed some way off. So far so bad, but despite that I found myself turning pages interested in what happens next.

Rowling’s middle England is a bleak, dark place. There’s not one happy family – all the children seem to despise their parents, with good reason. Huge psychological neuroses are carried around on shoulders young and old. A doctor refuses to treat a heart attack patient. There is no love or affection that is fulfilled. The only glimmer of hope for this community dies in the first chapter.

This novel has attracted over 500 Amazon reviews, so the chances of me having much original to say about it are slim. It has been portrayed as a political attack on the middle class, sneeringly done by someone whose political roots and allegiances are with the council estate rather than the detached mansions she now inhabits. This is of course simplistic; Rowling has not rewritten Hard Times here. But the mention of Dickens leads me cunningly on to what I think might be an original point. In this novel the Parish Council website is hacked four times, by four different characters, and messages are posted on the sites comment forum by “the ghost of Barry Fairweather”. Note – “the ghost of BF”, not “BF’s ghost”. Four ghosts – ring any bells? I think there is a deliberate, subtle reference here to the four ghosts in A Christmas carol, including the three Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Is Robbie Weedon a Tiny Tim figure perhaps?

Why – just a coincidence, or is Rowling making a more subtle point about regret. There is no Scrooge-like redemption at the end of this novel, and I clearly can’t build much of a case for the reference – but I bet it is there somewhere.

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