~ Posted by James Manning, September 27th 2012
I grew up with Harry Potter, almost literally. The Boy Who Lived was 11 when he arrived at Hogwarts for the first time in "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", and I was only seven when I read his name for the first time, but by the time the final book in the series was published in 2007 I was only a few months younger than Harry—old enough to have already taken my Ordinary Wizarding Level exams.
For my generation J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books were almost required reading. My parents bought two copies of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" on the day it came out in 2003, so that my brother and I wouldn't argue over who would read it first. That evening I sat in the corner at my aunt's 40th birthday party, nose-deep in my copy. Two years later we were on holiday in France when "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was published; I made my mother drive for an hour to find an English-language bookshop, then read until four in the morning. It wasn't just me: the last three books each beat the record the previous one had set as the fastest-selling book of all time, with millions of pre-orders and block-long queues outside bookshops.
But Harry Potter and I—and the rest of the Potter generation—have grown up, and J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction. Her first post-Potter novel "The Casual Vacancy" went on sale this morning at 8am and, as with her last four books, only a handful of reviewers got their hands on the whole book before publication. Several bookshops opened early, and a spokesman for Waterstones had said that his shop was "expecting early visitors…Probably a lot will be die-hard Harry Potter fans who are now adults." I went down to Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London, but at two minutes to eight, there were no Hogwarts alumni lining up outside. There was no queue at all, in fact—just one woman, who was perplexed by the casual vacancy of the pavement outside the bookshop. As I left with my copy, she was surrounded by press photographers: the first person in London (and possibly the whole world) to buy J.K. Rowling's new novel.
I was the second, I think. Having escaped the high journalist-to-customer ratio in Foyles, I sat in a café and started reading the book. I knew roughly what to expect from the advance publicity—village politics, social realism, expletives and, of course, no hippogriffs—but I wasn't quite ready for the first pages of Rowling's bleak, slightly spiteful satire. "The Casual Vacancy" opens with a death, and then a series of bourgeois grotesques. Middle-aged men and women worry about receding hairlines and sexual inadequacy, and teenagers struggle to conceal spontaneous erections and smoking habits. Twenty pages in, it struck me that this might be a whole novel about the Dursleys, Harry Potter's monstrous, middle-class guardians. I'm sure Rowling still has her genius for plotting, and, left to my own devices, I'm sure I'd have got around to reading the whole novel eventually—although I'm not so confident I'd have stayed up until four in the morning to do so.
However, my editors have asked me to keep reading. I'll be trying to make my way through the 503 pages of "The Casual Vacancy" over the course of the day, and will report back when I've finished it.