Harry Potter’s mommy has a potty mouth.
The wires have been abuzz for months with the news that Rowling was writing a new book—and this one a departure from her Potter franchise, a book for grown-ups. The wait was worth it, and if Rowling’s focus remains on tortured adolescents (as if there were any other kind), they’re teenagers trapped without any magic whatsoever in a world full of Muggles. There’s some clef in this roman, magic or not: The setting is a northerly English town full of council estates and leafy garden suburbs inhabited by people who, almost without exception, are not very happy and really not very likable. While a special election is in the offing, they do the usual things: They smoke and drink and masturbate, and they say and think things along the lines of “Like fuck he does, the cunt,” and when they’re lucky, they have sex, or at least cop a feel, best when a young woman named Krystal is involved. Ah, Krystal, a piece of work both nasty and beguiling: “She knew no fear, like the boys who came to school with tattoos they had inked themselves, with split lips and cigarettes, and stories of clashes with the police, of taking drugs and easy sex.” Sometimes, as with the figure who opens the piece, Rowling’s characters die—and, as with the American Henry James’ oh-so-English novel The Spoils of Poynton, when they do, they set things in motion. Other times, they close things up but never neatly. The reader will be surprised at some of Rowling’s victims and the ways she chooses to dispose of them, but this is less a book about mayhem than about the grimness of most lives. It is skillfully, often even elegantly written, and though its cast of characters is large and its thrills and spills few, Rowling manages to keep the story tied together and moving along nicely. Even so, it’s difficult to find much purchase among some of her characters, particularly the tough, poor ones who live on the edge of town, and it often seems that Rowling doesn’t like them much either. In all, when they’re not sneaking off to Yarvil for relief, the residents of Pagford are Hobbesian through and through: rich hate poor, and poor hate rich; Indians hate Anglos, and Anglos hate Indians; and everyone hates the meddlesome middle-class do-gooders with suggestive names like Fairbrother who try to make things better.
A departure and a revelation, though the story is dark and doesn't offer much in the way of redemption (or, for that matter, much in the way of laughs). Still, this Rowling person may have a career as a writer before her.