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Rowling’s first novel for adults goes on sale, divides critics

Copies of the “The Casual Vacancy” by Rowling have hit bookstores in London.

LONDON: British bookshops opened their doors early Thursday and some grown-up Harry Potter fans lined up overnight as J.K. Rowling launched her long-anticipated first book for adults, “The Casual Vacancy.” The lines were shorter and the wizard costumes missing, but the book was published to some of the same fanfare that greeted each Potter tome, with stores wheeling out crates of the books at precisely 8 a.m.

Published five years after the release of the last book in the boy wizard saga, “The Casual Vacancy” is already at No. 1 on Amazon’s U.S. chart, and bookmaker William Hill put 2/1 odds on it outselling “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which shifted 2.6 million copies in Britain on its first day.

Many of the early buyers were Harry Potter fans who, like the author, have moved on to more adult fare.

“I just like how much excitement there is about a book,” said 23-year-old Grace Proctor, a “massive” Potter fan who was first to buy the book at one London store.

“I think there are going to be people who will hate it just because they can hate it,” she said. “But she’s such an amazing writer, I don’t think she can go wrong.”

A story of ambition, poverty, politics and rivalry set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the novel recounts the civic warfare sparked when the unexpected death of a town official leaves a vacancy on the governing body.

Rowling has said she was aiming for Dickensian sweep in the multi-character saga, whose doses of sex, satire and swearing mark a distinct departure from wholesome Harry.

First reviews of the novel for adults Thursday praised its scope and social message, but warned that the gritty and at times even obscene tale was a far cry from Hogwarts.

Several reviewers said they were taken aback to read grimy scenes of sex and drugs, but added the author’s most vivid writing was on the familiar ground of adolescence.

“I had just read a passage written by the world’s favorite children’s author in which a teenager is raped by her mother’s heroin dealer, a man who may well be the father of the girl’s own three-year-old stepbrother, although it’s hard to know for sure when the mum concerned is a prostitute,” wrote Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph.

She added that “The Casual Vacancy” was “sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair.”

The Mirror branded it “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Filth,” warning that the author famed for her stories of young wizards was “sure to face stern criticism for featuring the C-word and F-word hundreds of times.”

In The Independent, Boyd Tonkin called it a “song of freedom” after Rowling’s seven children’s books, which made her the world’s first billionaire author.

While decrying the novel’s “clunkily satirical set-pieces,” he said it “picks up passion, verve and even magic” when dealing with teenage characters.

“All the social and hormonal turbulence that the later Potter volumes had to veil in the euphemisms of fantasy appear in plain sight here,” he wrote.

“The novel builds into a vividly melodramatic climax with these kids at its heart.”

But the Guardian’s reviewer Theo Tait labeled the edgier scenes “superficial excitements,” saying the novel created a sense of “slight anti-climax” despite its “richly peopled, densely imagined world.”

Writing in The Times, Erica Wagner said the book was founded on “the idea of the novel as a force for social good” but could be “a tiny bit dull.”

For the Telegraph’s reviewer, however, a top concern was the risk of the book falling into the wrong hands.

“In the coming days, along with thousands of parents around the world,” she wrote, “I will have to do something that offends our best instincts: I will try to stop my children reading a book.”

It’s likely nothing Rowling publishes will ever match the success of the Potter books, which have sold more than 450 million copies around the world.

But booksellers are confident “The Casual Vacancy” will be one of the year’s best sellers, whatever the reviewers say.

“A lot of children have grown up with Harry Potter. They’re now adults who love books,” said Susan Sinclair, divisional manager for the Foyles bookstore chain.

“I think it’s going to be a really big seller at Christmas. It’ll be an easy gift – but also a good one.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2012, on page 16.

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