In the shadow of Harry Potter?
The anticipation has been intense, and the keenness to knock it has been widespread. But ignore the naysayers - JK Rowling’s first adult novel isn't bad at all.
‘There is no part of me that feels like I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I’m a writer and I will write what I want to write.’
This was the bolshy reaction from JK Rowling to comments that her first foray into adult literature was letting down, or potentially corrupting, young Harry Potter fans. You have to give Rowling respect for that. After a decade of knocking out Harry Potter tomes to tight deadlines, she has decided to do something completely different. And given her enormous influence in the publishing world and the fact that she is now worth several hundred million pounds, no one was going to stop her.
With Rowling having attained near-legendary status as the creative genius behind the Hogwarts universe, the anticipation of her new novel, The Casual Vacancy, was intense. Over a million copies were pre-ordered, and bookshops opened their doors earlier than usual in order to meet demand. There was a veil of secrecy over the novel. Promo posters teased us with, ‘The first novel for adults from a storyteller like no other’. But it might have been a better strategy to manage the expectations of Rowling’s fans rather than excite them.
Because while at 500 pages The Casual Vacancy is not modest in length, it is a modest novel. Rowling has clearly decided to go back to a writer’s first principles and write what she knows about. The fictional West Country town of Pagford, in which The Casual Vacancy is set, is inspired by the Gloucester village of Tutshill, where Rowling grew up.
Many grand claims have already been made about Pagford. According to one reviewer, it ‘could be anywhere, and does, I believe, represent everywhere in Britain’. But to Rowling’s credit, she doesn’t seem to have set out to create a microcosm of Britain or to write a state-of-the-nation novel, as John Lanchester attempted to do, badly, with Capital, a novel about one London street published earlier this year. In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling conjures up some very human characters rather than simply ciphers for ‘saying something’, and, with a few notable exceptions, she really gets into their heads.
The novel begins with the untimely death of local parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, who suffers a brain aneurism at the age of 42. Fairbrother was a local kid, who had escaped life on a sink estate called The Fields and moved into the world of politics. He spent his time trying to integrate The Fields estate and the more middle-class village of Pagford, fighting a battle to ensure that Fields kids could attend the local school. Rowling uses the death of Fairbrother to pan out and introduce us to the residents of Pagford as the news of his demise reaches them. Their reactions to his death are deftly explored: some are detached, viewing the news of his death as little more than capital to use on the gossip mill; others are more deeply hurt. This allows us to empathise with the characters from the outset. The ‘casual vacancy’ left by Fairbrother on the parish council serves as the central plot device, as three candidates – with differing views on whether Pagford should have its boundaries redrawn so that The Fields can be included – jockey for position.
To the annoyance of many reviewers, while Rowling allows the reader to empathise, she doesn’t invite us to sympathise. Indeed, the most sympathetic character would appear to be the deceased Fairbrother. There are no everyman characters here; all have flaws and idiosyncrasies. Even the two most tragic characters from the estate, rebellious schoolgirl Krystal and her neglected younger brother Robbie, do not have excessive pity heaped upon them. Rowling can be remarkably harsh, and yet, although she constantly skates close to being melodramatic, her detachment from events remains, and it is refreshing.
She never explicitly moralises, though her sympathies are betrayed by her inability to flesh out the internal lives of the more right-wing characters. She is, for example, far more comfortable describing the physicality and actions of the conservative delicatessen owner Howard Mollinson, who had ‘a great apron of a stomach [which] fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it’. But, contrary to some claims that she has written ‘500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’, Rowling seems not to be under any illusions about what really lies behind the difficulty in trying to integrate an estate and a middle-class enclave – and it isn’t only right-wingness. Also, Rowling never exaggerates communal tensions – so when it is pointed out to a local Sikh girl, the ‘only brown girl in the class’, that the village is ‘so frigging white’, it is nice that the girl had seemed so relatively oblivious to this fact.
Perhaps the closest parallel between The Casual Vacancy and the Harry Potter novels is the fact that the best creations in this new novel are a trio of teenagers: the lusty Andrew, the damaged Krystal, and, most interesting of all, the intelligent but brutally self-absorbed Fats. It is Rowling’s exploration of these three characters, far more than the adult characters, or the ‘casual vacancy’ plot device, that gives her first adult novel merit.
Judging by this novel, it would be a mistake to put Rowling on a pedestal and claim she stands out among storytellers. There are many who are her equal, and some who are far better. But Rowling’s ability to create unique, interesting, living, breathing characters has, mercifully, prevented her first novel for grown-ups from being anything like a moralising dirge.