No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 23, 2007

#36: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- J. K. Rowling

Is a review of a much-reviewed book any less worthwhile than a review of a book that has attracted little attention?

Is a review of a much-reviewed book easier to write, or more difficult?

As this is not, in any sense, a 'professional' review I shall sidestep those questions and write for myself. This will be a rather fragmentary review because I'm still assimilating, and I'd rather latch onto specific passages and plot elements than attempt an assay of the overall book -- or, even more ambitious, the whole series.

WARNING: It is likely that there will be spoilers below ...

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I read the book in one sitting (with frequent refreshment breaks and stretches): it was a strangely companionable feeling, sitting alone on my patio and knowing that thousands of other people were reading the same book, maybe even the same page, at the same time. Knowing that if I wanted to discuss the book, I could, pretty much instantly. That's quite a rare feeling for me.

I got through a whole pack of index stickers, all for plot points or foreshadowings. I'm increasingly appreciative of Rowling's craft as a writer -- complex plots with plenty of clues, echoes and omens, elements of myth and legend, sly wit -- but I don't read her for poetic prose.

It's a novel full of strong women, from Lily Evans to Narcissa Malfoy to Hermione. I liked Hermione more than ever in this novel (anyone who calls Ron Weasley an arse gets my vote). She's matured into a heroine. The way she Charmed her parents a new life in Australia 'they don't know they have a daughter', seemed to me one of the bravest actions in the book, because the decision wasn't made in the heat of battle or in grievous peril but in the cold light of day by a seventeen-year-old girl. She's orphaned herself, for all intents and purposes.

I still can't decide whether Narcissa's willingness to lie to Voldemort (after Harry's told her Draco's alive) is in contrast to Lily (who didn't have to lie, and would doubtless have refused to) or an echo. It's not as if all the parents we encounter are paragons of virtue. Xeno Lovegood is prepared to betray Harry rather than see Luna threatened.

There's a lot about parents and children in there ... Harry ends up as a godfather to Teddy Tonks, just as Sirius was to him. (And Teddy's parents meet a similar fate to Harry's own, though it's off-stage, almost casually dropped into the flow of events, and little is made of it.) Earlier, Harry gets angry at Remus for being so eager to leave his wife and unborn child: "Parents shouldn't leave their kids unless they've got to." In the final battle, Molly Weasley goes for Bellatrix (yay Molly!).

And there are passages and scenes ("Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?") that make me curious about Rowling's previous experiences of depression and therapy. She's said that the Dementors are embodiments of severe depression, the crushing weight of despair. With the emphasis on self-confidence (the Patronus), really meaning things (the Unforgivable Curses), and visualisation (Riddikulus), I'm reminded of some standard therapeutic methods (which might've worked better with me if they'd been as effective as they are in a spell-casting sense!) Has anyone written an essay on echoes of depression and therapy in the series? They should.

There's some solid philosophy in there too, from the true master not seeking to run away from death to Harry's decision not to race for the wand: "he could not remember, ever before, choosing not to act". And the climactic scene reminded me of passages in The Golden Bough*: the sacrifice must be willing.

Voldemort's increasing influence is described in terms that evoke the rise of the Third Reich ("People won't let that happen," said Ron. "It is happening ..."). There are freedom fighters, an underground resistance and stirring sentiments: "Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving." Bravery and heroism, individual and collective. "Sometimes you've got to think about the greater good." Though it's notable that the person Harry later calls 'the bravest man I ever knew' meets his death alone and unlauded.

I was surprised, though not disappointed, by Rowling's light touch with the death scenes. There are plenty of 'em, but in almost every case the death is skimmed -- not taken lightly, but simply not the focus. Perhaps it's because (more convincingly and effectively than in previous books) we're seeing through Harry's eyes, and Harry's grown up and toughened up.

Good thing too, since he's in the middle of a tortuous and long-sighted plot, and has to discover that not only his father and godfather, but Dumbledore too, had feet of clay; that others knew, all along, the price that Harry would have to pay; that others have to pay that price as well. That he's in possession of things (symbolically and concretely) that have immense significance. That people have died and are dying -- being tortured -- living lies -- because of him.

Though it's a tremendous page-turner, I did feel the pacing could have been adjusted a little. Far more pages were devoted to the All-Britain Camping Trip than it really deserved: not nearly enough to what happened after. (So how does Harry occupy himself, in the epilogue? Is he the new Gideon Lockhart?) And maybe there were slightly too many new threads, from the eponymous Hallows (first mentioned on page 328, more than halfway through) to the goat-fancying barman (p. 451) to the cloning charm, the name of which I've forgotten, but surely someone would have mentioned it?

I was pleased to finally discover the Bloody Baron's story; completely flummoxed by Charity Burbage; unconvinced by some of Harry's logic ("I'm descended from the third brother! It all makes sense!" Er, no, it doesn't ...); dead impressed with Neville; elated by Professor Trelawney's crystal ball methodology; wistful about Sirius; and, really, extremely entertained throughout. I read another long-awaited seventh volume within 24 hours of this: it's deeper and more demanding and energetically inventive, and I enjoyed it very much: but Deathly Hallows was the one I picked to re-skim for review. 'Fun' is a strange word for a book with so many deaths, disasters, betrayals and cruelties, but .. yeah, a fun read, and a gripping one.

*not to mention The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the New Testament; The King Must Die; The Return of the King; Watership Down; The Mark of the Horse Lord; Return of the Jedi ....

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