If J.K. Rowling had followed up the Harry Potter series with a Harper Lee-style retirement, her name would still go down in the history of popular literature. The publication of her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, five years after the Potter series had finished, was an event that turned out rather anti-climactic. Response ranged from “OK” to “pretty good”, but almost anything would have been a disappointment amidst all the hype and expectations built up by the name J.K. Rowling. Rowling herself must have realized this, as she swiftly released another novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. “Galbraith” earned rave reviews, many in disbelief that Cuckoo’s Calling was a debut novel. Reading the book after her secret’s been blown, how does it stand up?
Quite well, in my opinion. Is it Harry Potter? Well, of course not. Honestly, it’s a good thing that Rowling’s trying her hand at different genres (socio-political drama in Casual Vacancy, traditional murder mystery in Cuckoo’s Calling) rather than simply trying to recapture the magic of her coming-of-age fantasy. Is it as great as Harry Potter? No, not quite. As a story it lacks the constant forward moment of Prisoner of Azkaban or the strength of a emotional resonance of Half-Blood Prince. As a piece of writing, however, it’s Rowling in top-notch thoughtfully clever form, and it’s more consistently interesting than the somewhat meandering Casual Vacancy.
With three distinct stories published now, it’s become easier to get a picture of Rowling as a writer beyond the particulars of the Harry Potter universe. One thing that’s a clear strength for her is providing mysteries. The Potter books kept readers theorizing up until the end. The conclusion to Cuckoo’s Calling‘s big mystery shows similarities to one of Potter‘s, but it’s constructed so well that I could not predict the outcome. Casual Vacancy‘s the weak link of Rowling’s body of work so far probably because it lacks mystery for the reader; there’s some for the characters, but the constant perspective switching serves to keep the audience out of the dark.
All of Rowling’s books carry a flair for names. A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but Severus Snape, Krystal Weedon, and Cormoran Strike couldn’t go by any other names. Also throughout all her books is a concern for broken families, present from the beginning of The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone and making for the most interesting pieces of character development in both Vacancy and Calling. Social inequality is another concern of Rowling’s, and one that’s well-served by her adult novels, being able to directly deal with issues of religious discrimination and racial identity as opposed to through the allegories of house elves and mudbloods.
Whether or not she’s ever able to equal her accomplishment with the Potter books, The Cuckoo’s Calling indicates Rowling still has a great writing career ahead of her. Or possibly even more stuff behind her we haven’t even noticed. Any more suspicious pseudonyms out there?