THIS IS a book crying out not to be written. However hard the author's nose is pressed to JK Rowling's window-pane, he has simply not discovered enough for a biography - given a subject who guards her privacy closely and who refused all co-operation. Starved of first-hand information, Sean Smith has to fall back on transcripts of radio programmes for direct quotations. The rest of his material is mostly made up from old press cuttings and interviews, often from a time before Rowling achieved her fame.
The fact that this biography still remains readable is a tribute to Smith's professionalism, hard won with titles such as Sophie's Kiss (a biography of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones). There is also entertainment in the spectacle of someone trying to make literary bricks with so few visible straws. Some of the digressions, such as what was on at the movies the week Rowling started at Exeter University, come with an almost audible authorial sigh of relief at having something concrete to write about.
For total Harry Potter fans, there is just enough to slake some mild curiosity. Friday, 16 October, so specifically warned against by Professor Trelawney in book three, is also the date when Rowling made her unhappy marriage in Portugal. Harry's grief over his dead parents has affiliations with Rowling's feelings for her mother, who died at 45. The sinister Dementors, who suck the happiness out of people while stealing their souls, are convincing metaphors for the depression Rowling suffered as a single mother caught in the poverty trap and living in sub-standard housing.
But such details do little to help explain the enormous success of the Potter books. Rowling may well have particularly hated chemistry lessons at school and transferred this feeling into Harry's detestation of Professor Snape's classes in potions, but her stories succeed not because she incorporates this or that childhood memory into her fiction. She is instead a born writer, showing all the signs from the first: a lively imagination, an early talent for storytelling and (most important) a determination to spend as much time writing as possible. …