‘I worry a bit, Joanne’
- BuyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown, 503 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 4087 0420 2
The Casual Vacancy is as much an event as a novel – J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults! – but only the novel aspect can be reviewed. Incidental atmospherics don’t come into it – an astronomer trying to establish the composition of a comet will try to look beyond the streak it makes in the sky. On one level, nothing could be more natural than that a successful writer should try something new. Nobody finds it strange when a composer of symphonies writes chamber music, or a sculptor starts exhibiting drawings. It’s true that in fiction the direction of genre travel is usually the other way round, with established novelists such as Salman Rushdie or Jeanette Winterson trying their hand at work for a younger age group, but it’s hardly a binding rule.
In other ways it seems perverse. What can top the experience of capturing a global audience, made up mainly of readers for whom your books have been an introduction to the power of fiction? It’s a readership Rowling has honestly earned. For quite a while her publishers seemed to be running to catch up with her sudden popularity, rather than scheming to promote it. Her reward has been a relatively restrained backlash: Christian groups in the States have claimed that a saga about a young wizard must necessarily be satanically inspired, and A.S. Byatt has implied that if Rowling made a deal with the devil she should have held out for greater imaginative powers.
It’s hardly a revelation that War and Peace and Ulysses have more prestige than the Harry Potter books, but no one has ever had as intense a relationship with those novels as the ten-year-olds a decade ago did with Rowling’s series – the children who would only say ‘you-know-who’ for fear of the syllables that make up ‘Voldemort’. The world Rowling is now setting out to conquer is actually smaller than the one she ruled for so long. The attempt is more than a whim, though it’s likely to be less than a disinterested artistic impulse, and it’s still a bit mystifying. When you’ve found the Holy Grail at your first attempt, why do anything as ordinary as diversifying into cookware?
Tolkien is one of the few writers to have started out with a book aimed at a lower age-group. The world of The Lord of the Rings is continuous with the world of The Hobbit, though the angle of vision is very different. Death now permeates Middle Earth, even if the secret of sexuality, perhaps even more traumatising, seems to have been kept from Mordor as much as from the Shire. There’s no comparable connection between the Harry Potter books and The Casual Vacancy, unless you count a scene about halfway through where a young wizard, having placed a curse on his father, burns the scrap of paper on which the spell was written.
The wizardry concerned is of the computer sort. A schoolboy called Andrew Price posts a defamatory statement about his hated father, Simon, on the website of Pagford Parish Council. Simon has put his name forward for election as a councillor, to replace the popular Barry Fairbrother, whose sudden death has created the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title. The technical means of delivering the poisonous message is an ‘SQL injection’, something mentioned to Andrew’s computing class by a young supply teacher who was trying to impress them and ingratiate himself.