by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2007
** WATCH OUT, SOME SPOILERS AHEAD. DON’T READ ON, UNLESS YOU’RE THE KIND OF PERSON WHO READS THE LAST CHAPTER FIRST. **
Phew, it’s finished! I devoured the final Harry Potter book over the weekend, having deliberately avoided much of the pre-launch hype for fear of tripping over an accidental spoiler.
(There was a worrying moment when, eating lunch on Sunday at a local café, while only two-thirds of the way through, a near-by couple started discussing the book a bit too loudly. I almost had to cast aside my natural English reserve, and ask them to desist. Fortunately, a louder French couple came and sat ‘twixt them and me, drowning out their gossip, and the crisis was averted.)
For a long time – in fact until I was dragged along to see the first film – I adopted the simple cynicism of those joyless
muggles critics who dismiss JK Rowling’s creation (without having read it) as just so much marketing hype, before noting, with well-practised hauteur, that there are much better written children’s books.
Of course, they are right: the books are over-hyped, and JK’s style is often cumbersome. The thing is, I don’t care: I love ’em.
There were times when I lost the faith, I admit – around about the same time JK lost the plot. I refer to the The Volume Which Must Not Be Named, The Order of the Phoenix (book five of the septet). Though it contains moments of genius – the viciously girly-sweet character of Dolores Umbridge; Harry’s punishment of writing lines which become gouged in his own blood on the back of his hands; the Weasley twins’ escape from Hogwarts – overall it’s a lazy, morose, confusing, repetitive, sloppily-edited mess.
But its successor, The Half-Blood Prince, marked a return to form; and the latest book, The Deathly Hallows, is perhaps her best yet. (Which is enough to make me yearn for JK to re-write Order of the Phoenix, and get it right this time.)
It is breathless stuff right from the off, with no let-up in the pace – a stark contrast to the pleasantly meanderingly earlier volumes which saunter, episodically, through the traditional school year. By the half-way stage, readers could be forgiven for being absolutely knackered.
But what elevates this book above its predecessors is JK’s interleaving of action-packed, death-defying escapades with thinly-veiled allegorical and historical parallels. ‘Grindelwald’s mark’ or ‘the sign of the Deathly Hallows’ is – like the swastika – either a symbol of evil adopted by an evil dictator, or a harmless, faintly mystical, cipher. In the middle, deliberately dark, section, JK becomes almost Biblical, casting Harry into the wilderness to test his faith, while Ron’s faithfulness is sorely tested by Voldemort’s devilish temptation to act on his worst impulses.
Fortunately JK’s dialogue retains, indeed improves on, its customary lightness of touch, coaxing laughter out of the reader at the most tense moments. “Always the tone of surprise” remark both Hermione and Ron at different times, each gently rebuking the other in touching symmetry.
We must also genuflect in the direction of JK’s deft, tight, spot-on plotting. Doubtless there are nerdy Potter-heads all over the country currently dissecting the plot, scrutinising it for flaws or inconsistencies. But The Deathly Hallows is a triumph of forward planning.
All kinds of loose ends are neatly tied-up: what Dumbledore saw when he looked into the Mirror of Erised; the purpose of the two-way mirror left to Harry by Sirius; why Dumbledore never became Minister of Magic; how Wormtail would redeem his debt of honour to Harry; how come Harry was so wealthy; what Dumbledore saw when he drained the fatal potion in the cave; and why Snape hated Harry and killed Dumbledore.
Personally, I could have done without the four-page epilogue which fast-forwards 19 years to wrap up the protagonists’ lives. And ‘All was well’ is not a final sentence which will achieve immortality. But, then, I’m a grown man reading a children’s book, so – really – I should just get over it.
And, anyway, what I probably dislike about it most is the sinking realisation there definitely won’t be an eight book. Unless JK suddenly finds she needs the money…