One of the great pleasures / responsibilities of being a lit critic is that you are asked to review countless debut novels. When I first began reviewing, I remember this feeling unusual to me – coming as I did from a background in academia, where you generally don’t read anything without an almost infuriating knowledge of every critical perspective, every last theoretical interpretation, every minute biographical detail.
What struck me about latest release debuts is how pure, almost virginal the experience of reading them is. How free I am from anything that might sway me one way or another in my interpretation of the text.
With established authors, however, it appears that any new novel is judged though the prism of their previous works. It’s the Faustian contract writers enter into when they publish their first novel: if granted any level of success, you’ll never be free of your earlier works, and everything you do will be inescapably judged against it.
And so it was with the release of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, consigned in almost every review I read to a comparison with the Harry Potter books – Pagford is said to be populated with Muggles, one of the principal families described as pale imitations of the Dursleys, the book retitled (admittedly rather brilliantly) Mugglemarch.