Harry Potter made JK Rowling’s name and her fortune, but can the author repeat the success with her first novel for adults? Sarah Freeman reports.
There was no special midnight release, no eager queue of customers in fancy dress and, despite the strict instructions that came with the first delivery of JK Rowling’s new novel, there was, in truth, little of the excitement that greeted each fresh instalment of Harry Potter.
Yesterday at Waterstones in Leeds when the doors opened just one hour early at 8am, there was less of a rush more of a quiet amble from a few dedicated fans keen to be among the first to get their hands on The Casual Vacancy, the debut novel for adults by Britain’s most successful living author.
“There was a bit of a queue, but to be honest I’m not sure whether they just happened to be passing by,” said Waterstones worker Gale Battye. “I guess we sold about seven or eight in the first hour and by 11.30 we were probably up to 40. That’s pretty good for any book, but it’s nothing like the stampede for Harry Potter.
“None of us were allowed to look at a copy until we arrived in the morning. The manager has had a quick flick through the first few pages and he said it seemed quite literary. I’ll be taking one home with me tonight – I was a big Harry Potter fan, but I’m in my 20s and you have to move on.”
While the book may have failed to move the public to Hogwarts levels of hysteria, the critics were more than happy to put Rowling’s first post-Potter book under the spotlight. Variously describing it as “unadventurous”, “bleak” and “brilliant”, it is undoubtedly a departure.
In The Casual Vacancy there is no platform nine and three quarters to transport readers from Kings Cross into a fantasy world. Instead, Rowling takes a journey into grim social reality.
Set in the fictional middle-class idyll of Pagford, just a short walk from the picturesque cobbled streets lies The Fields, a council estate home to drug dealers, prostitutes and troubled teenagers. For the supposedly genteel residents of Pagford, the boarded-up windows and burnt- out cars have become a symbol of its residents’ ignorance and indolence.
Over 503 pages, those two very different worlds collide following the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother. Born in The Fields, he escaped through education to the other side, but, as a respected local bank manager and parish councillor, he continued to straddle both worlds.
His death leaves the “casual vacancy” of the book’s title and the triggering of a by-election sees Pagford’s Conservative party mount an offensive. If they can see their own man to victory, the constituency boundaries can be redrawn, shifting responsibility for The Fields to the neighbouring city of Yarvil.
In sharp contrast to Pagford’s university-educated chattering classes sits Krystal Weedon, dismissed by many as a delinquent teen destined to grow up into just another number on the Government’s benefit statistics. However, before his death, Fairbrother punctured Krystal’s chaotic homelife, instilling in her the embryo of self-belief and ambition.
The Casual Vacancy is a novel about society’s failings and about morality, but it’s not, insists Rowling, about “Broken Britain”, rather “broken people”.
“We talk about the poor as this homogenous faceless mass,” Rowling told the BBC’s Culture Show.
“I hate the phrase Broken Britain, it’s trite, simplistic, political point scoring which is the antithesis of what needs to happen.”
Having made an estimated £620m from Harry Potter, Rowling has said herself that she need never have written again. However, the 47-year-old, who has been openly critical of current Government policy, clearly has a lot to say and while The Casual Vacancy may be a work of fiction it has been borne out of her own life experience.
“I was born into an ordinary middle class family where there wasn’t a great deal of money,” she said. “I worked as a teacher and for charities where you don’t make a great deal of money, then I was for a few years living solely on benefits.
“I’ve been as poor as it’s possible to be without being homeless and then, as we all know, I became very rich. I’ve known life at real extremes.”
When Rowling read excerpts of the novel on a Culture Show special on Thursday it was the fact the woman who in Harry Potter had introduced a new vocabulary of quidditch and hufflepuff to the English language seemed now to prefer four-letter words that caused the most surprise.
Yet times move on. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have all tried with varying degrees of success to prove they are more than Harry, Hermione and Ron. Five years after the last book in the Potter series was published, for Rowling too it is time to step out of the boy wizard’s shadow.
One man who knows first hand what it’s like to move from away from children’s books is GP Taylor. In the 10 years that followed the publication of his first fantasy adventure Shadowmancer, the Scarborough author established himself as one of the country’s leading writers for children and the film adaptation of his first book in the Mariah Mundi series is due to hit the big screen next year.
However, when his deal with publishers Faber came to an end, Taylor decided that he would step away from writing children’s novels and move instead into screenwriting.
“I honestly think it is much easier writing for adults than it is for children,” says the former vicar, who recently completed a screenplay for the horror film X-Breed.
“In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s incredibly liberating. When you are writing for children you have a moral responsibility and you have to ensure the work abides by certain standards.
“When you’re writing for adults, you have much more freedom to explore the kind of themes which just wouldn’t be appropriate in children’s literature.
“A decade on from my first book my own audience had grown up and they were asking if I could write something for them and I’m sure that’s the case with JK Rowling.
“What’s interesting is that, unlike with the Harry Potter books, she has seemed much more comfortable this time with doing the publicity round and to talk about her work.”
The Casual Vacancy is no Trainspotting and Culture Show presenter James Runcie told Rowling that following her portrayal of drug addiction, racism and promiscuity in a town at war with itself she should expect a bumpy ride.
He was probably right, but Rowling’s response proved that despite her move to adult fiction, she hasn’t yet lost touch with the audience who made her a global star.
“If that happens, I will suck it up as my teenage daughter would say.”
The Casual Vacancy: The critics deliver their verdict
“A solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel... the book seems doomed to be known as Mugglemarch... The plot is often predictable; it requires a large helping of artificial contrivance; and it lurches into melodrama in the final act. It all rattles along nicely enough, but it leaves a slight sense of disappointment.”
Theo Tait – Guardian
“Rowling’s writing, which can be long-winded and laborious in the clunkily satirical setpieces, picks up passion and even magic with Krystal and the other adolescents... Slowed down by its fussy class geography and wheezing plot-motor, the novel builds into a vividly melodramatic climax with these kids at its heart.”
Boyd Tonkin – The Independent
“Can The Casual Vacancy ever live up to the hype? On balance I would have to say no. Not unless you want to have more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto, masquerading as literature crammed down your throat. Rowling likes to describe her book as a comic tragedy, yet there are few laughs to pierce the blanket of gloom.”
Jan Moir – Daily Mail
“Perhaps the biggest surprise after months of secrecy and false leads is that the world’s best-known, best-loved and best-selling author is the real deal, more than equipped to tackle the grown-up world. The Casual Vacancy is a stunning, brilliant, outrageously gripping and entertaining evocation of British society today.”
Henry Sutton – Daily Mirror