We asked a non-binary person to review the new JK Rowling book. They had a lot to say
If you thought JK Rowling’s previous book in her Cormoran Strike series was an unsubtle nod to anti-trans bigotry, the latest instalment really said: “Hold my beer.”
The Running Grave is the seventh novel in the author’s thriller-mystery series, named after its main character, which she writes under her very public pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
The previous story, The Ink Black Heart, looked at how a public figure was “cancelled” for being anti-trans. It didn’t take a great pair of detectives to figure out the novel was a case of art imitating life as Rowling herself has complained about being doxxed and threatened for her views on the lives of trans people.
And there’s much more of that in her latest title.
The new book follows sleuthing duo Strike and Robin Ellacott as they help a father worried because his autistic son has joined a religious cult, which touts itself as being inclusive but shames and targets anyone who attempts to speak out against it.
It is almost openly mimetic of JK Rowling’s experience as it paints people like her, who are just worried about “vulnerable” folks, as victims of a relentless group that is ostensibly based on equality, diversity and inclusion.
The father in the novel is described as the “patron of several charities” concerning education and child welfare, who has a “reputation for intelligence and integrity”.
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It reads blithely like Rowling describing herself because she founded children’s charity Lumos, and she has positioned herself as a champion of women’s rights and child protection.
It’s decided that Robin will go undercover to infiltrate the cult, posing as a new recruit. To attract the attention of recruiters, she dyes her hair blue and says her wedding was called off.
It’s a not-so-subtle nod to how conservatives have associated people who have blue hair with gender-non-conformity and self-expression. There’s even a meme, which has been reclaimed by LGBTQ+ people online, mocking those with “blue hair and pronouns” – aka trans people and their allies.
The details of the cult are horrible, with members forced to do manual labour, starved, subjected to physical punishment and sexually exploited by higher-level cultists and leaders.
This does bear a resemblance to real-life cults, which Rowling captures relatively well.
But it’d be remiss if we didn’t extrapolate the beliefs of this “dangerous cult” and the events in The Running Grave, to see how they truly mirror Rowling’s public downfall as a result of her controversial statements.
First off, many right-wing pundits pushed harmful grooming claims about trans people and lambasted the LGBTQ+ community more broadly for allegedly attacking individuals for sharing anti-trans beliefs.
For example, Tucker Carlson and online group Libs of TikTok described the LGBTQ+ community as an “extremely poisonous cult [that] brainwashes” people.
Kathleen Stock, who resigned from her role at the University of Sussex after students called to have her sacked over her trans-exclusionary views, has written at length in newspapers and spoken on TV about being villainised by trans people and allies.
Elements in The Running Grave smack of anti-trans ideology
In the cult, members are required to have sex with one another. As a result, a lesbian is forced against her will to sleep with men. Later in the book, a gay man refuses to go to bed with a woman.
Robin, who has established herself in the cult by this point, sees nothing wrong with this, but another cult member scoffs at her for thinking “there’s such a thing as ‘gay’”.
The cult member then says “bodies don’t matter”, only the “spirit” matters, and it’s against the cult’s beliefs to think people aren’t “good enough to sleep with”.
Anti-trans people have claimed to speak for women when they rile against the trans community, alleging that lesbians are being “erased” by transgender people.
This rhetoric takes many forms, with claims that lesbians are being “coerced” into having sex with trans women and that young queer people are “pressured” into transitioning.
Both myths have been debunked, but the fact remains that such narratives still permeate conversations when transgender issues are brought up.
The book also takes clear aim at “social justice warriors” and left-wing people because the cult is concerned about homelessness, addiction, climate change and social deprivation.
It believes that these are “ills generated by a capitalist, materialistic” society before deriding the “materialist trappings of property, weddings and the so-called nuclear family”.
A door-stopper of a novel, clocking in at more than 900 pages
Protagonist Strike is unpleasant but somehow a magnet to women. In several chapters, he bemoans the fact that he’s on a joyless weight-loss journey but also deals with a host of female characters who lust after him while he juggles his feelings for Robin.
The book’s treatment of women is questionable at best. It genuinely feels as if JK Rowling has taken on the persona of a male author trying his hardest to write female characters.
One woman is described as a power-hungry seductress who “took a used condom out of the bin” to try to get pregnant by the man she was having an affair with – I kid you not.
In another chapter, Strike wonders if a different woman is gay – before asking himself if that’s “offensive” – because she goes to the gym, is nearly as “broad across the back as the man nearest her” and doesn’t return the interest of a flirtatious man.
That isn’t even the first or only time that the “is this offensive?” thought process comes up during the enormous 900-plus pages it takes to tell this story.
Across the book several characters who are neurodivergent are described as being a “bit simple” or outright called the ‘r’ slur – although the use of this word is also debated among characters in the book
Robin questions if one of the higher-level members is biracial because he is tall, and the Chinese men she was “used to seeing in Chinatown” were “generally much shorter”.
Oh, and then there is fatshaming. Unattractive women are nonchalantly described as chubby or fat, and Strike mentions weight loss before delving into his own perceived attractiveness and/or attraction to others.
There could be a decent narrative in The Running Grave, but under JK Rowling’s leadership, the few glimpses of a basic but good story are covered up by a flawed veil of troublesome themes, unpleasant characters and page upon page of unneeded exposition.
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