A tough magic act to follow
JK Rowling’s new book is out, and it’s got plenty of sex and swearing – but without the magic of Harry Potter will it cast a spell on readers?
‘BARRY FAIRBROTHER did not want to go out to dinner.” That’s the rather nondescript line that kicks off JK Rowling’s new novel, her first beyond the gigantic Harry Potter series, and her first specifically written for adults. The Casual Vacancy is out and there’s nothing Rowling can do about it now. In an autumn unusually laden with high-profile publications, this is the big ‘un.
So, what’s it like? It’s alright. Compelling enough to keep the pages turning, and a promising, sometimes clever, sometimes clunky start to a new chapter in Rowling’s career. There naturally will be criticism of Rowling, much of it surrounding the sex and swearing that occasionally colours this novel’s pages and is not exactly appropriate for children. And those who grew up with Harry Potter all the way into adulthood might not be taken with it either. Of course, plenty of writers double-jobbed as successful children’s authors along with a sideline of adult fiction, most notably and probably the best comparison with Rowling being Roald Dahl, who mixed his classic children’s books with biting, sinister adult fiction.
Yet the conservative setting of the small West Country town of Pagford where The Casual Vacancy is set could be the type of place you’d imagine Harry Potter’s small-minded aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon living. With tragedy befalling Barry Fairbrother in the first chapter, the real context of a parish council election unfolds, with all the small-mindedness, conservatism and begrudgery that personifies the first rung of local politics in this Wisteria Lane of curtain-twitching England.
There is sex, often not very nice sex – “He took a long time to climax, his horror at what he had started constantly threatening to deflate his erection” – and references to modernity – Nintendo DSs, DVDs, parish-council websites and Rihanna. The swearing, while not at Irvine Welsh levels, is still noticeable. And there is an attention to detail in the history of Pagford, the town in which the large clutch of characters, who are not particularly likeable, reside. The words sparkle when we’re with male teenagers, all sneaky cigarettes, crushes and parental resentment. Andrew, a teenager in the book dreams “of London and of a life that mattered”, forms a parallel matched with young Rowling’s preoccupation.
Rowling’s marketing machine, based on less is more or “denial marketing” as it’s labeled, is odd when you consider her huge global success. In the same way that Hermès will only manufacture the desired number of bags to keep the waiting lists growing, by giving the media and public alike minimal information, the desire for Rowling’s books grows. The titles to Harry Potter instalments were kept well hidden, as was the content of The Casual Vacancy, until a handful of privileged people were allowed read it before its publication yesterday morning at 8am.
Rowling doesn’t have a loose flow. She hems the reader into very specific descriptions, not allowing one to think beyond her rigid construct. With Harry Potter, this was a blessing, as she created a world so detailed and well-thought out that there was an explanation, a context and a history with every character, conflict, building and spell. Transferring that attention to detail to a very non-magic world can at times feel as though she’s softly pummeling you into seeing what she sees, understanding what she understands, leaving no room for interpretation or misinterpretation. Rowling doesn’t do vague; she’s a fan of specifics, generally preferring to tell, not show. This is what’s needed when you’re creating a complex world within which to base a 400-million-selling seven-book franchise. So it’s inevitable that her first novel outside of the doors of Hogwarts will be something of a transition of her style, rather than a complete departure.
The Casual Vacancy is a sturdy read, dare I say even a little boring. Although Rowling has most likely been briefed on the criticisms she’ll endure, she probably won’t enjoy them. Throughout her career, she has been depicted as a private, controlling and sometimes thin-skinned figure. In the New Yorker’s exhaustive profile and interview with her this week, for which she sought and was refused quote approval, one quote – not from her, but from her fellow children’s author AA Milne – stuck out: “If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.”
Milne might have been moaning, but Rowling should rejoice in the fact that while The Casual Vacancy will automatically be placed in the shadow of Harry’s world, it’s only because that creation was so astounding.