Over the last week and a half, I finally read J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. As I sit here, minutes after finishing, I'm not sure I've ever read a better book. (As a children's writer, I need to make clear right now that this is NOT a children's book; it's a hard, honest, unflinching, very adult look at poverty and politics in a small town.) It's a huge story--told from ever-changing points of view of about 20 characters--and there's not a boring moment in it. The characters often have more ugliness in them than empathy, but each has humanity--in the sense that they are capable of affection and love and in the sense that, more often than not, they are stuck being who they are and don't make great progress throughout the course of the novel. I didn't like many of these characters, but I cared about them; I wanted them desperately to do right by themselves and those around them even when I knew deep down that they wouldn't. The characters remind me of those in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections; as in that book, the characters feel both archetypal and achingly, individually human at once.
Rowling is a marvelous writer. She writes eloquent prose that moves seamlessly between the many points of view. Her dialogue captures that compelling if difficult space between what people think and what they say.
In the end, wow. A brilliant, darkly funny, disturbing, assured novel. Rowling sure can tell a story.