Peyton Place filtered through Graham Green with a little bit of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.
When Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm, his death sets off a chain reaction in the small English town, Pagford. First of all, it creates a vacancy (hence the book’s title) on the Council. Fairbrother had been a strong supporter of keeping a low income housing project as part of Pagford. He is opposed by a smug, controlling businessman Howard Mullison who wants to rid the village of the “undesirables.” The battle over the empty seat, and the haves and have-nots, soon engulfs everyone in Pagford, and slowly reveals the messy and not-so-pretty reality behind the pretty facade of the town.
Very few of the characters of likeable, living almost completely in their small, self-centered world. Rowling slowly strips the town bare, revealing issues of abuse (domestic and child), marital infidelities, neglect, rape, racism, suicide, poverty and rampant hypocrisy.
The book falls within the “black comedy” genre, with a dash of 21st century Dickensian storytelling. Rowling uses the third person omniscient viewpoint throughout the book, and though a tricky technique, pulls it off quite well. The scene during Howard Mullison’s birthday party is one of the highlights of the book, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, seamlessly moving from one character to another to give the reader a quick snapshot of the party, very much like a roving tracking shot in movie.
Give Rowling credit for breaking out of the Harry Potter world. She takes a bold move in shucking off the YA fantasy writer mantel and pulls it off quite well.