Received, Read and Reviewed -- by 7.15 p.m. today! Phew. I feel like I've been riding bareback on a centaur -- wheeehoooo! The review should appear in tomorrow (Sunday 17th July)'s Times of India Weekend.
Here's what I wrote:
We enter the seething cauldron of sixteen-year-old Harry Potter's spell-bound life with a crackle of green fire, in the office of a nameless British Prime Minister. Yes! Magic has begun to seep out of Hogwarts, the school for young wizards and into the world of unsuspecting Muggles. That's you and me, in case you haven't already been seduced by the first five books of the internationally best-selling series by British author J.K.Rowling.
The scene soon shifts to Hogwarts and remains there for most of the six-hundred pages of the book. Gone are the burlesque scenes of Harry's adoptive Muggle family the dismal Dursleys. No more do we tryst with giants in distant forests or learn the correct technique for subduing Hippogriffs. Even the various budding romances remain, thankfully, minor tendrils compared to the heavy breathing of the previous book. In this, the penultimate volume of the series, the shape that the final confrontation will take is clearly stated: Harry will need to find and destroy the separate fragments into which his nemesis, Lord You-Know-Who Voldemort, has splintered his soul. How Harry comes by this knowledge and what he needs to find out about himself before he can embark upon this difficult and dangerous task is what occupies the current book.
It is an altogether quieter story, despite the usual quota of soul-rotting curses, unforgiveable villainy, despicable betrayals, corpses, deaths … none of the books is anything less than a bullet-train of plot! This time around, the headmaster of the school, white-bearded Dumbledore works closely with Harry to uncover the secrets of the boy's destiny. He is one year older and less volatile than when we last saw him, less spontaneous, more distant. Slowly but surely, like a train drawing away from a platform, he is leaving the station of his youth behind. There are apparently going to be no stops now: when the next book ends, he will be a man.
There are several moments of hilarity, of course, such as Harry's first use of the Levicorpus spell that throws all the sleeping boys in the dorm around him soaring up into the air at daybreak; there is Hagrid and his rough humour; there are the snog-wars of teenage couples. But the overwhelming agenda of the book is grim rather than amusing. We are never very far from the brink of extreme doom and even when small victories are won, they are always against the backdrop of dastardly murders and hell-brewed schemes.
If we clear away all the distraction of spells and potions, characters and caricatures, though, we find one all-engrossing theme: identity. Who is or was the Half-Blood Prince? Was he Voldemort? Was he a she? Or was he some as-yet unknown, but unusually gifted wizard who left behind handy crib-notes for Harry to use in his borrowed copy of Advanced Potion-Making? Come to think of it, the search for identity is what animates all the Potter books. Each one is about discovering the true nature of the characters who appear in various guises, whose back stories fill the shop-windows of their lives. Is this, perhaps, a clue to the global popularity of the book? Because it is certainly true that in this alphabet soup of cultures that we live in world-wide, understanding who we are has become the overwhelming goal. Once we know that, we can decide what we eat and where we'll shop; who we'll marry and where we'll live; when to wear our head-scarves and whether or not to strap on a belt of explosives that will blow up a train-load of passengers.
Identity is the raw material of the human cultural machine. The Greek myths used the gods to pepper their stories with half-divine heroes while we use the word "magic" in the place of "divine", but the stories remain much the same: seek the source of power, ponder its meaning and struggle to use its burden wisely. No surprise, in today's desk-bound reality, that our hero is a geeky-looking boy with glasses, dark-hair and a spindly frame - and no! I'm not going to tell you who dies. I didn't read six-hundred pages in six hours just to give the plot away!