Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I'll see you on page 42

WARNING: Plot Spoilers

I am currently devouring Robin Hobb's most excellent Liveships trilogy, enjoying once again an author that is fearless in her writing. Hobb, along with the equally ruthless George R R Martin, has my eternal regard because she is not a sentimental author, allowing the most hideous hardships to overtake her heroes over and over again until you feel fate-ravaged yourself and wish desperately she would stop creating such cruel realities and indulge in some old school positive tweaking of the plotlines. Reading until 2am on a school night because I just met these guys and they are going through a rough patch, I remembered a heartfelt book review I knocked up at the start of the year.

A week before I left Perth for London and needing cheap entertainment due to budgetary restraints, I got my greedy hands on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and lay in bed for nine hours straight getting back into life at Hogwarts. At 3am that morning I let the book slam to the floor, numbed with disappointment. I was so new to the art of writing that I had not the vocabulary to articulate my deep-seated displeasure with the book Rowling had foisted on the fans, except to surmise that she had obviously become too big to be ruthlessly edited.

Two years later, in the dull lull of my time on counter I picked it up again and spent the first three quarters of the book wondering what I had been banging on about last time. I was hooked all over again, laughing out loud in pleasure as usual, and it was not until the last quarter of the book, after Harry looks into Snape’s pensieve, that I remembered my previous disappointment. This time I was able to put my finger on exactly what I don’t like about the book.

Harry’s rages perfectly set the book in the claustrophobic maze of a teenager’s mind, but the actual descriptions of the feelings raging in him needed to be tightened. The use of caps for his yelling was a stylistic gaff that jarred each time and the mirroring of his raised voice in Bellatrix Lestrange’s maniacal screeching was one of the contributing factors for the mess that is the ending of the book. I found myself immune to caps screaming by the time we got to Lestrange’s histrionics and felt like bellowing a ‘SHUT UP EVERYONE!’ myself. Rowling is so adept at conveying the attitude of the speaker in their words – anything the twins say, especially their hilarious display of careless cruelty when teasing Ron for his goalkeeping skills – yet Harry’s rages are clumsily executed using font, not prose, and start feeling repetitive. Typeset does not compelling reading make!

I love Rowling’s work for her sharp plots, for each baddie hidden in the one place you just didn’t look and for the fascinating magical creations that read like an inventor’s fantasy, charming you when you are first introduced, then go on to play key parts in the plot. In Phoenix Rowling is again in fine form; Grimaud Place, the paintings of the Headmasters, the Ministry of Magic and the Room of Requirement are brilliant and the flying memos are my nomination for most practical literary creation. Snape’s pensieve memory is a moment of painful genius, along with Umbridge’s pen and the Weasley’s exit; Rowling once again proves that she can invest real horror into the ordinary. But these set pieces are strangely sidelined, playing minor roles in the plot and deserting the climax when we are least expecting an echoing hole in the narrative. The less said about Grawp the better, he is the equivalent of the proverbial big purple elephant in the room with us.

The closing talk with Dumbledore is the most disappointing dénouement I have read since the Power of One. Shockingly anticlimactic, it somehow renders Harry’s suffering during the book less poignant. I understand the need for Dumbledore’s points on the primacy of love, but in the previous books he taught lessons in both Harry's own personal humanity and the inhumanity of his worldly legacy. The lack of the usual strong messages make the devoted reader ache with emptiness. Rowling has some terribly important lessons on entering the adult world to reveal in the next books and it would have been nice for Dumbledore to foreshadow some of them.

The adult themes of the next books are going to ensure that the strongest character of the Potter-verse comes into his own. Severus Snape is surely one of the most polarizing villains, save perhaps the infinitely readable Tyrion in A Song of Ice and Fire, because he is the most painfully human character in the book. As each thread of the relationship between Snape and the Marauders is revealed, Rowling uses Snape to illustrate the tangled web of friends and enemies that is created when one generation grows from childhood to adulthood, the intertwining threads of accumulated actions, of familiarity and contempt turning clear childish air to suffocating adult grayness. Snape is the purest example of Rowling’s multifaceted characterization and overwhelming humanity.

When I am sad and alone, as I was when I picked up Phoenix the second time, I like to retreat to a world that holds someone as knowledgeable as Dumbledore, as steady as McGonagall, as brave as Hermione, as incurable as the twins and as inhumanly flawed yet humanly perfect as Snape. Meeting up with old friends really is just as easy as turning a page.