New York: Harry Potter sold millions and made her one of the richest women in the world. Now at forty-seven, JK Rowling has written her first novel for grown-ups. Her book is set in contemporary Britain, shaded with memories of her own struggles. The Casual Vacancy which is 512 pages long hits bookstands in most parts of the world on Thursday.
The pre-orders of the novel are reportedly the highest in Britain and America for any book this year. Philip Stone, of the Bookseller magazine, said it was likely to be “one of the biggest book releases of the 21st century”. The late-September launch of The Casual Vacancy will, for weeks, render all other fiction invisible to readers and to the media, predicted The New Yorker.
Far from her usual wizarding world of fantastical battles between good and evil, Rowling’s new novel is set amid semi-rural poverty and like so many British novels The Casual Vacancy is inescapably about class. It also deals with heroin addiction, prostitution and teen-age perplexity and sexuality.
The full text of The Casual Vacancy is a closely guarded secret, but journalist Ian Parker who signed more legal documents than would typically be involved in buying a house before being allowed to read The Casual Vacancy, under tight security in the American offices of Little, Brown has revealed some of the book’s more risque passages.
“It may be a while before we’re accustomed to reading phrases like “that miraculously unguarded vagina” in a Rowling book, and public response to The Casual Vacancy will doubtless include scandalised objections to the idea of young Harry Potter readers being drawn into such material,” wrote Parker in The New Yorker.
Although some fans may be grumpy about the direction she has taken, Rowling who has written seven Harry Potter books, and sold more than 450 million copies, insists she should be free to write about whatever she wants.
“There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” said Rowling, who has three children. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
“I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling said. “The thing about fantasy — there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.”
The idea for The Casual Vacancy came to Rowling five years ago when she was on a private plane, touring America to promote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series that made her one of the richest authors in the world.
“I can’t remember what triggered it,” she told USA Today. “It just came to me. It’s hard to sum up the idea, but it was for a disrupted local election, and I could see immediately that that was a perfect way to get into a small community, of examining a lot of different characters of different ages. I’m very drawn to that type of book. I like to get in among a set of people and get to know them very well.”
In Rowling’s novel, the tiny fictional British village of Pagford is turned on its head after one of its parish councilmen, Barry Fairbrother, dies. Rowling uses his death as a way to examine the inner workings of the village government and the lives of its residents.
It is no accident that poverty and its related problems are a core issue in the novel. Rowling told The New Yorker that; “In my head, the working title for a long time was ‘Responsible,’ because for me this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense — how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life — but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”
Rowling, once a penniless single mother who relied on government assistance to care for her daughter, has established a charitable trust that helps people in need. Rowling had a short and catastrophic first marriage to a Portuguese journalist. Broke, clinically depressed and suicidal, Rowling moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister and survived on benefits while writing the first Harry Potter. She later made it to the Forbes billionaire list by writing books.
Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, told USA Today that Rowling’s new novel reminded him of Dickens because of “the humanity, the humor, the social concerns, and the intensely real characters.”