If there isn't the same hysteria over JK Rowling's first novel for adults as there was for her Harry Potter books, it won't be for lack of effort on her publisher's part.
Thanks to an orchestrated campaign in which secrecy and security have been tighter than at any time since the D-Day landings, excitement about The Casual Vacancy is mounting. Come Thursday I wouldn't be surprised if an army of middle-class, middle-age women descends on bookshops as if it were the opening of the Harvey Nichols sale.
The intelligence blackout surrounding this book is finally relaxing, thanks to pre-publication interviews Rowling has given in which she and her interviewers divulge what the story is about. Thankfully, despite the rumours, it is not a crime novel. The New Yorker's Ian Parker describes it as a "rural comedy of manners", though Rowling prefers to call it a "comic tragedy".
Set in her childhood haunt of the English West Country, in the fictional town of Pagford, it's the tale of a community riven by class prejudice, as candidates vie for a position on the parish council in order to protect themselves from the influence of a troublesome housing estate on its outskirts.
It's interesting that in her first foray into modern realism Rowling has moved from classrooms to class. As she told one newspaper: "We're a phenomenally snobby society, and it's such a rich seam. The middle class is so funny, it's the class I know best, and it's the class where you find the most pretension, so that's what makes the middle classes so funny."
Is this fascination the result of years living in Edinburgh, one of the most status-obsessed cities in Britain? It wouldn't surprise me, but as Rowling recalls her resentment of the posh students she met at Exeter University as a young woman, it's clear the subject has been simmering for decades. As Parker writes, "Paraphrasing [F Scott] Fitzgerald, she said that she reacted to Exeter 'not with the rage of the revolutionary but the smouldering hatred of the peasant'."
By taking class as her subject, Rowling is in good company. Those who suggested the new novel might be titled Mugglemarch were not so far off the mark, given that the ghost of George Eliot hovers over all authors who anatomise rural English society. But it's rather curious that Rowling has chosen to set her novel and its prickly characters in England rather than Scotland. Is class a more pressing issue in its small towns than here? Are discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots starker in the south than on the doorstep of the author's Barnton mansion? Or is she going back to a part of the country she knew when she was young because, following fame and the paparazzi that's come with it, she has never been able to get to know Scotland properly?
One can only speculate. But whether or not class exerts the same influence here as over the Border, what's certainly true is that our novelists have, of late, had very little to say about it. They are excellent at depicting particular groups – the working classes, underclasses and middle classes all have their laureates, among them James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Candia McWilliam and Alexander McCall Smith – but few pitch one set against another. Scottish literature is like an onion peeled rather than sliced, each layer remaining separate. You have to go back to the likes of Robin Jenkins, Compton Mackenzie or Eric Linklater for the ranks to intermingle, and when they do, it's often through the Victorian prism of a laird and his workers.
Yet while Rowling has stepped beyond her Scottish peers, one could hardly call her radical. Library shelves groan with English novels, from Jane Austen to Martin Amis, in which class tension sizzles and spits like a barbecue about to combust. Of course, when the first Harry Potter novel came out, people scoffed that this sort of thing wasn't new, only to discover that in Rowling's hands it was. There are just three days until we find out if The Casual Vacancy has pulled off the same trick, or is in a different class altogether.
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