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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

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J.K. Rowling claims to have mapped out all of the events of the seven Harry Potter books before she began writing the first, when she was a poor single mother camped out in an Edinburgh cafe. So she'd say, I guess, that the spectacular, distinctly cinematic set-piece ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was already in her mind, with the dramatic, action-filled 600 pages that lead up to it.

Well, maybe, but I wonder. There's been a distinct trajectory to the series to this point, with Harry turning 17 (adult in Rowling's world) at the start of this seventh book. As the characters have gotten older, the subject matter has gotten darker, and more "adolescent", a trend you'd have expected to see continue with Hallows. Indeed, some reviewers have already seen it as a continuation of the dark sanguinary depths of The Half-Blood Prince.

And yet, while there is indeed no shortage of blood in the rush of battles, duels, captures, escapes, and near-misses, the tone is distinctly different. It is cartoonish, cinematic, but without the psychological depths of the sixth volume.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron spend long periods of Deathly Hallows cramped together under enormous physical and mental stress, yet they seem to suffer no more than the cabin fever you'd expect from any three people thrust into that situation. From one book to another these characters have grown up instantly. Adolescent torments and tantrums have dissolved, as if by magic.

Much else in Deathly Hallows, however, remains as before — the lovingly described detail of this alternative universe that allows its fervent fans to debate for weeks the precise effects of a spell or a curse, the complicated mechanism by which the hands of fate, or the will of Dumbledore, are played out.

Much too is wrapped up, or given depth — Dumbledore's family and personal history, of which we've previously known little, and, of course, that great question of the real allegiance of Severus Snape. (No, don't worry, I'm not going to give that away here; you'll have to read the book.)

Even, finally, after six books of being treated with total contempt, Rowling invites her readers to feel some sympathy for Dursleys, that unattractive epitome of Thatcherite suburbia. There's none of the sharp political satire of Half-Blood Prince, and, sadly, little of the delightful humour of the middle books. The general absence of Hagrid, with his Falstaffian presence, is sadly missed.

But it is the lack of real darkness that is the most notable absence. Harry certainly endures events that are as dramatic as could be imagined, but he glides through them all more like James Bond than George Smiley, with little of the existential angst and societal dislocation he suffered in Half-Blood Prince.

You might almost say that J.K. has gone soft, whether this was her original intention or not. She's said, again and again, that she won't be writing about Harry in any further book, and the epilogue of Deathly Hallows does its best to drive home that message, taking the surviving characters two decades into a comfortable future. Perhaps as she spent her last months with Harry, Rowling could not bear to give him too rough a time, too traumatic an experience.

So Deathly Hallows is great fun, gripping reading, I didn't regret the two hours in the cold it took me to obtain it, and it should make a great action movie. But I'm looking forward to Rowling moving on to adult characters and adult themes, taking some of the intellectual and emotional sophistication that she displayed in Half-Blood Prince, rather than slipping back to the successful action formula of the early Potter books, as she's largely done here.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Rish

    Thanks for the review – which you have put so succinctly. And I agree most whole heartedly with – especially the fact that the book lacks the depth of Half Blood prince and order of phoenix and doesn’t seem as dark to me as it has been publicized in pre release interviews and talks.

  • Great review, Natalie. I was surprised by that epilogue and a little bit annoyed. I suppose it was not in her mind when she planned out the seven books years ago. It seems clear that it is tacked on, sort of a way to close the door and keep it shut. That scar had to make it in there too.

    Still, no one can argue about the impact of the book. Yesterday I took my daughter to the mall and kids were all over the place with the book, sitting on benches and reading it and talking about it. If nothing else, we can thank JK for this and hope that reading is a habit that they will keep.

  • Egbert Sousé

    “I suppose [epilogue] was not in her mind when she planned out the seven books years ago.”

    That’s a silly statement. Planning all seven books doesn’t mean she had created every single detail then.

  • Brenda

    Egbert, shutter off your superiority complex with the kind of comments you’ve been making on others on this blog and another…

  • Darla

    How can you say that this last book lacked the depth of HBP?! I disagree; I think it was a wonderful end to a wonderful series. You say JK went “soft”, and that the “lack of darkness” is the “most notable absence”. OK. Killing 6 people Harry was close to and countless others isn’t dark? And I suppose by having Harry survive, JK was not giving him “too traumatic an experience”. True Harry Potter fans are glad he prevailed, and would have it no other way.

  • reema

    i quite agree with Natalie that it sometimes seems that harry goes through all the duels with james bond like fashion.also there are some lopeholes in the story of hp7:would doubledoor keep the hocrux books so easily available that any student can summon tham by a summoning charm like hermione does???and in the end how ever can ron n hermione visit chambers of secret with ron learning words of palsertounge so easily when harry speaks them once?is palsertounge so easy to learn??????????

  • Bigmommabird

    Thanks for your review. I agree absolutely. I found this the least engaging and least well-developed of the books in the series. It had a hurried feel to it, as though Rowling were simply trying to get all the ends wrapped up and the series finished on deadline. The plot lent itself to character development and emotional depth, but the book failed to realize that potential.

  • After avoiding all reviews of Deathly Hallows because I’d been too busy to read it, when at long last I had time to finish the book, yours was the first review I read, Natalie. I was, to be quite frank, stunned by what you said, so I have taken a few hours to reflect on it (and on how I could respond without spoilers for any of the three or four other fans who haven’t read it yet).

    I am finding it difficult to imagine what book you might have read. Perhaps some unscrupulous bookseller purloined entire chapters from the version of the volume you purchased? I can think of no other way a reader with your unquestionably high intelligence and perception could possibly say this book contained no political satire.

    Perceptive readers could disagree over how effective the satire was, but I am firmly convinced that if and when you re-read this volume you will see the satire was not simply omitted, as you seem to be claiming here.

    However, my most strenuous objection (again, with all due respect to you) is to your claim that Harry Potter does not suffer very much in this book. In my estimation, the events here are more intensely traumatic to him than anything he encountered previously.

    Although it was not always explicitly stated, a vital point seems clear to me. In Harry’s earlier struggles and challenges, the worst of his suffering was mitigated by his relationship with Dumbledore. In this book, Harry learns new information that casts doubt on his own previous admiration for Dumbledore. Before the end, he even loses his belief that Dumbledore ever sincerely cared for his well-being.

    His struggle to go on fighting, even after reaching such disheartening conclusions, struck me as the most lonely and difficult of all the battles Harry ever fought.

    I cannot go into much more detail without revealing too much. I hope these comments have given just enough detail to support my views without giving enough to spoil anyone else’s reading experience.

  • Steve

    Well, it’s been a few weeks now since I last read the book, and I have to say, the middle portion of the book where Harry, Ron and Hermione were camping here, there and everywhere really dragged for me, I felt like J.K. was filling in time because she had to adhere to the ‘school year’ structure of the other books (I read an article in the summer by Stephen King about the book and he agreed with me on that).

    Certainly, there could have been more character development in that portion though, and perhaps some time reminiscing about their past adventures would have been nice.

    I guess the negative effect of the locket thingy they carried around prevented that from happening, which was disappointing. I almost wondered if J.K. was using that to try and avoid any romance between Ron and Hermione that would be inappropriate for a children’s book! If so, well, I guess I can’t fault her for that.

    Other than that, however, I really enjoyed the book. I’m not sure what you thought, Natalie, would be darker in this book, as it was quite dark for me (though it must be said, as a children’s book, I would have been uncomfortable if it had been any darker, frankly, and I say that even though I don’t have any kids myself.).

    As to the satire, well, I guess I don’t look for politics in my fiction necessarily, quite enough of it in the real world thanks, so I don’t mind if that’s missing, though I thought there was some in it, but not in too didactic a way thank goodness.

    One of the things I like about her writing is she is rarely heavy-handed about anything, so you’re not always bracing yourself for a wince-worthy paragraph!

  • kartik

    i liked this book irealy enjoyed it reading