What did the critics really think of "Cuckoo's Calling" (before they knew it was by J K Rowling)?

Actually, they liked it. Galbraith's Cormoran Strike thriller could mark the start of another intensely successful Rowling series.

A reinvigorated J K Rowling has stuck two fingers up to the literary establishment with her first novel under the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith'. The Cuckoo’s Calling was met with widespread acclaim upon its publication in April before the true identity of the author was revealed by The Sunday Times yesterday. Rowling has spoken of the “pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” and this pleasure will inevitably be tinged with a sense of vindication, following the mixed reviews received by Rowling’s first foray into literature post-Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy.

Before Rowling was exposed, publishers Mullholland initially claimed that the book, released in April, was based on Galbraith’s own experience in military service.  The crime thriller follows the elaborately named Cormoran Strike, a wounded Afghan veteran who now pursues a career as a private investigator. Alongside his new secretary Robin Ellacott, he investigates the suspicious suicide of celebrity supermodel Lula Landry.

Geoffrey Wansell of the Mail showers compliments upon Galbraith’s “auspicious debut”. Particular praise is reserved for Cormoran Strike who possesses a “dark fascination”, and is the most interesting fictional detective since “the wonderful Eddie Ginley, nightclub-comedian and wannabe private eye, in director Stephen Frears’ debut film Gumshoe [1971]”. Wansell astutely concluded in May that “there is no sign whatsoever that this is Galbraith’s first novel”.

Publisher’s Weekly was similarly appreciative of Galbraith’s “stellar debut”. It celebrates the novel’s “host of vividly drawn suspects and witnesses” and its “elegant solution”, and is once again, hugely impressed by Strike, “a complex and compelling sleuth.” It concludes that “readers will hope to see a lot more of this memorable sleuthing team".

Teresa Jacobsen of the Library Journal flattered Galbraith with even more inventive adulation, describing the novel as “like a mash-up of Charles Dickens and Penny Vincenzi”. Jacobsen found the novel engrossing, “laden with plenty of twists and distractions”. So too did Marcel Berlins of the Times. He commends the “sparkling dialogue”, and also Galbraith’s critique of celebrity culture.  A “scintillating debut novel set in the world of models, rappers, [and] fashion designers...” manages to produce a “convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour".

The second Cormoran Strike thriller is to be published in 2014. Reviews of the sequel are however set to be skewed by Rowling’s fame. They will surely not demonstrate the same unassuming inspection enjoyed by Galbraith’s first novel.

Rowling's pleaure following Galbraith's success will be intensified following the mixed reviews of "The Casual Vacancy". Photograph: Getty Images.
Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear