Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Judging a book by its cover

With months still to go until the hotly anticipated publication of J.K. Rowling's first novel aimed at adult readers, her publisher has decided to tantalise us with the release of the book cover.

I have to admit... I am not impressed.  After the beautiful artwork adorning the Harry Potter book covers, I can't help but feel that very little effort has been put into the design of 'The Casual Vacancy'.  Yes, the colours are bold and eye-catching, but red and yellow is not a complimentary combination.  When Waterstones posted a picture of the cover on their facebook page, someone commented saying that it reminded them of a Caramac wrapper.  The cover provides very little insight into what the book is about: with the only clear hint being the crossed ballot box.  We are left to read into things.  Is the retro detective novel feel of the cover intentional?  And knowing Rowling's tendency to attach huge significance to what appear to be passing details in the plots of her Harry Potter novels, my eye can't help but be drawn to the lower-case 'I' in her name - although this is probably just a stylistic detail.

Luckily, the blurb provided on the Little, Brown book group's website gives us a clearer impression of what the book is actually about:

When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils...Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults

However, even this seems evasive.  Perhaps I'm just so eager to get my hands on the book and start reading that no hint will ever satisfy my curiosity.  It sounds as though Rowling will be focusing on a community: a group of characters rather than one overriding protagonist voice.  Of course, the Harry Potter series is full of characters, with the omniscient third-person narrator enabling the reader to become very well acquainted with many of them - but the the books' focus is clearly on Harry.  I am interested to see how Rowling tackles this different narration approach.
Honestly, if I had never heard of J.K. Rowling and saw this book cover sitting amongst hundreds of others in a book shop, I doubt I would pick it up.  It's a little dull; there isn't really anything to draw the reader in, and I find the colour scheme off-putting.  Even if they just removed the yellow border, I think I'd like it a whole lot better.  But who hasn't heard of J.K. Rowling? There's a woman who does not need to rely on book covers to sell her stories. The cover could be a blank sheet of paper and I'd still be queueing up to buy this book

The fame attached to Rowling's name has reduced the need for her book cover to attract the right kind of reader. Instead, the design is clearly being used to add to the suspense and mystery surrounding the publication of the novel as it teases but refuses to satisfy. And of course, the plain cover sets itself apart from the detailed artwork associated with the Harry Potter series - and this is probably exactly what Rowling wants to achieve with this novel. I can't help but be disappointed that it's such an ugly book, but I can appreciate the intention behind the design.
I imagine this cover will have a marmite effect: people will either love it or hate it.  What do you think?

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