JK Rowling's Books for Adults
- The Casual Vacancy is Rowling's first non-Harry Potter book. It is set in the suburban town of Pagford and deals with the realities of "Broken Britain", and the attitudes of the middle class to "troubled families". The book was first published on 27th September.
- Cuckoo's Calling was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. First published in April 2013. The book is a whodunnit featuring the private detective Cormoran Strike. It is planned to be the first book of a series. The story is set in London.
JK Rowling After Harry Potter
Of course many adults, myself included, read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but JK Rowling has now published two books for a decidedly adult audience.
One,the Casual Vacancy, is a comic tragedy set in a small idyllic village that is an exploration of the "Broken Britain" concept, of a dysfunctional family in a deprived council estate living next to a middle class community who want nothing more than to erase them from their lives. The second book, Cuckoo's Calling, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is a traditional whodunnit crime novel.
Both books aroused huge interest, and sold many copies, because of their famous author. I have to admit I would probably not have read either of them, if it was not for the Harry Potter series. I liked both of them, although I thought each had its weaknesses.
I definitely don't think they would have sold as many copies as they did without the famous name on the cover.
Summary of the Casual Vacancy
The casual vacancy in the title is created when a well respected, progressive, Parish Councillor dies suddenly, precipitating a local election. The conservative members of the small Pagford town see a chance to replace him with one of their own, and pass through changes to the town's boundaries to exclude the deprived Fields housing estate.
The move would stop children from the Fields, such as Krystal Weedon, from attending the local school with their middle class offspring.
Rowling uses this setting to explore the reality of what British PM, Dave Cameron, referred tp as "Broken Britain". Families that rely entirely on benefits, with nobody looking for work, with drug use and child neglect is rife.
J.K. Rowling's politics are decidedly left-of-centre, and this clearly comes through in the book. In fact The Causal Vacancy was described by rightwing columnist Jan Moir described it as "more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature"
The Casual Vacancy is not Kind to the Middle Class
The Weedon family would certainly have most Daily Mail readers nod in horrified agreement with the Tory politicians. The mother is a heroine addict, although at the beginning of the book she is in a methadone program in an attempt to prevent her 4 year old son from being taken into care again.
Her daughter Krystal is foul mouthed, promiscuous and violent. She conceives of a plant to become pregnant so she can obtain social housing on her own. Surely an example of how he shirkers and skivers are forever costing decent taxpayers ever increasing amounts of money.
However, social problems are not the exclusive domain of the poor. Beneath the respectable veneer of the middle class families, there is morbid obesity, alcohol abuse (and J.K. has remarked that these vices are not treated with the same censure as drug abuse of poor people), verbal abuse and violence, mental illness and self-harm. Not all in the same character you will be relieved to know.
I don't share Jan Moir's political views, but to a certain extent I do agree with her that the relentlessly bigoted and self-satisfied middle class people in the book made it rather boring to read. It did seem to me that the satire lacked any finesse.
On the other hand, Rowling claims that there was no satire, that there are people like that in the real world, and says that if anything she "toned them down a bit". That might be true but it is still tiresome to read about them.
The hypocrisy of the middle classes, and their easy conclusion that the people living in the Fields are entirely responsible for their troubles and therefore deserve no help, is a big theme of the book. As Rowling says "I'm interested in that drive, that rush to judgment, that is so prevalent in our society, We all know that pleasurable rush that comes from condemning, and in the short term it's quite a satisfying thing to do, isn't it?"
JK Rowling Reads from the Casual Vacancy
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Cuckoo's Calling Review
If The Casual Vacancy reminded me of Jilly Cooper books, then starting Cuckoo's Calling felt like being back in the world of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. An unfortunate feeling since, apart from a superficial resemblance, Cormoran Strike is nothing like Dirk Gently, but it was a while before I could shake off the feeling.
Strike definitely gives off the impression of somebody who's unkempt and living in chaos. When we first meet him he has a black eye, is avoiding phone calls about paying off a debt, and regularly receives death threats in his mail.
However, these facts turn up not to be that pertinent to his character. He used to be a soldier with the military police, but decided to leave the army and start his own business as a private investigator.
At the beginning of the book, he is in a pretty bad situation, he has very few clients, a large debt to pay off and he has just split up with his wealthy fiancée (the cause of the black eye). Out of the blue he is hired by a lawyer to investigate the death of his supermodel sister three months before the beginning of the book. The police investigation was quickly closed, with everybody believing it to be a suicide, however the brother is convinced it was murder.
Although Cormoran initially believes the brother is wrong, and simply in denial about his sister's death, he takes on the case and works it very consciously, definitely not a Dirk Gently kind of character.
The book works well as a whodunnit, although I found the ending rather quaint in an Agatha Christie sort of way. Strike figures out the case, but we the readers are not told his conclusions, until he meets the killer face to face and explains his reasoning to him.
The Location of Cormoran Strike's Office
One thing that I found endearing in the Cuckoo's Calling book, was that Cormoran Strike's office (and temporary home) was above the 12 Bar Club (which for some reason is referred to as the 12 Bar Club and Cafe).
This small bar provides a live music venue for independent bands. A few years ago I knew somebody who played there frequently and would often go there.
No character in the book actually goes inside the 12 Bar, but the base from the club is a constant refrain in the book, usually when Cormoran tries to sleep on his camp bed in his office.
It is strange to read about a venue in a book, where one used to go to in real life. If you are interested the map on the right shows the location of the 12 Bar (and Strike's office).