The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first book not set in the wizarding world, has gotten review ratings all over the map. Many reviewers are passionately disappointed that is is not a Harry Potter book.
The major departure is not just the lack of magic, but the relative lack of optimism. This book has a fundamentally different view on human potential, and on bravery and heroism, that may leave fans of Harry Potter, a series primarily about the great effectiveness of these higher ideals, dejected. Rather, you’ve got a story that is horrifying in its depiction of mundane normalcy. It’s about the human tendency to turn a blind eye rather than help a neighbor, and the hopelessness of change without that help.
But I tell you what: I thought it was quite good.
When I read the description of The Casual Vacancy, I thought, “Huh, this is like a Zadie Smith novel.” Indeed, NW has similar subject matter: economic stratification, racism, the social effects of British Imperialism, technology, drug use, and all their effects on modern life. Of course, Zadie Smith got there first.
NW is ambitious, telling the stories of two girls growing up in Northwest London, along with the stories of other residents of that area, in chapters with changing focuses and narrative styles. Smith captures universal feelings of unease, of being caught in the tide of cultural expectation and economic hardship, and unable to break free.
While the alternating chapters are an interesting device, the changing methods of marking dialogue–or not marking it, as the case may be—are just distracting. What’s wrong with quotation marks?
Good for: Fans of Zadie Smith. Don’t know if you like Zadie Smith? I recommend starting with White Teeth.