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.
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era