On one of my random lunchtime bookshop trips I found this beauty on sale for half price and decided to pick up a copy. I thought I’d heard about it from someone on YouTube but, after some research, I’m pretty sure that I was mistaking it for another book. Nevertheless, I found myself at the starting point of a few uninspiring novels and, after being excited by the writing in the final sentence of the first page, I started my journey.
I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry Augustto finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.
Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.
Last year, HarperCollins launched their Austen Project with the release of Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The project was clearly born out of a well-thought out marketing strategy to take the hard earned pennies off both the modern writer’s pre-existing fans and Austen lovers whilst introducing her works to people scared of dipping their toes into Romantic era prose. However, the publication of the first in the series didn’t offer the resounding success that the firm were clearly hoping for. The major reaction tended to be that, whilst the novel was fairly well written and very tounge-in-cheek, it was all a bit pointless. Back in March this year, the second modernisation was released: an update of the under-appreciated Northanger Abbey, a novel Austen wrote in her youth, by crime writer Val McDermid. Northanger Abbeyis my favourite Jane Austen novel (not that it means a lot coming from an Austen cynic such as myself) so there was a lot more riding on this than the previous attempt.
A few years ago it was announced that The Austen Project would task six bestselling contemporary writers with updating one of Jane Austen’s novels. Most probably in an attempt to introduce modern readers to one of England’s most loved authors and to prove that her work is still relevant within today’s society. The news was received with the inevitable dismay of her many fans who think it sacrilegious to mess with the words of their beloved novelist. To the chagrin of my Romanticism professors, I have never been a major fan of Austen: in fact I can only really admit to actually fully enjoying Northanger Abbey, which is simply because the second half of the book is batshit crazy and Gothic. It’s always seemed to me that Austen was writing Bridget Jones’ Diary with added corsets which meant that women of every generation have lapped up the hopelessly romantic journeys of her heroines whilst still feeling as though they are enjoying some sort of feminist doctrine.
Now I’m not trying to say that she isn’t talented and there is real evidence within her novels that she was clever and very witty. However, no amount of random and bitchy tangents can change the fact that she is the grandmother of chick-lit and I’ll never be able to get excited reading the tales of annoying girls falling in love with utterly objectionable men. Regardless, I was interested in this modernisation plan because when it is done well it can be fantastic. For example, Emma may be my dad’s favourite Austen novel but you can just give me Clueless any day of the week. Plus, no matter what I may have just said, I don’t really mind Sense and Sensibility but that is mainly thanks to Emma Thompson’s lovely adaptation. So, as soon as I could find a cheap enough version, I set about to see whether Trollope had pulled off a Clueless or a She’s the Man.
One thing I can’t criticise is the choice of author. No matter what I think of Joanna Trollope in the grand scheme of things she does understand the world that Austen was concerned with and she certainly knows the novel inside and out. In terms of her rewriting, she stays very close to the original plot: the level-headed and stoic Elinor becomes an architecture student whilst the emotional and dramatic Marianne is a layabout guitarist with asthma. Along with their family, the sisters must leave their beloved home to start a new life with no money and no real idea about romantic entanglements.
This weekend saw massive books news. Literally nobody was crying out for me to offer my opinion on the matter but that’s not stopped me so far. As we all know by now, on Saturday it was revealed that a book with positive reviews but mediocre sales was actually written by one of Britain’s most bankable authors: JK Rowling. As cover-ups go it’s not exactly the most exciting but the revelation that Robert Galbraith is actually just JK’s second pseudonym has taken the literary world by storm. The BBC New website has helpfully quoted the following from a Waterstone’s spokesman which pretty much sums up the general feeling: “this is the best act of literary deception since Stephen King was outed as Richard Bachman back in the 1980s”. JK insists that she wishes that the truth could have come out a little later but her publisher must be pretty happy that people found out just as sales weren’t going so great. What a happy, happy coincidence.
This week is very much about JK Rowling. Her follow-up book to the ridiculously successful Harry Potter series (and first attempt at writing for a completely adult audience), The Casual Vacancy, was released on Thursday. As such, I have read an array of articles about her in the past few days with many of them causing me at least a modicum of distress. As you would expect, the vast majority are overflowing with references to her popular series of Harry Potter books but reveal very little about her latest work. The author’s highly anticipated follow-up was shrouded in mystery and very little information was revealed about it prior to publication. It therefore provided the perfect chance to rake over old ground and talk about the series that have (in my mind mistakenly) lead to Rowling being named one of Britain’s top authors.
The first article that struck a nerve was an interview with the author in the Guardian on Saturday in which she discusses the possible reaction from the literary world. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/22/jk-rowling-book-casual-vacancy) She also revealed that she believes her decision to publish her new book under her current nom de plume, rather than another fake name, was a ‘brave decision’. (“But in some ways I think it’s braver to do it like this.”) Brave? Really? An author who has made millions from a series of seven books is saying her decision to write under her well established name is brave? Who does she think she is kidding here? I admit, there is some pressure on her to release another book that people enjoy as much as they did her previous work. Had that mattered to her so much it would have made more sense to remove this book from her past work completely and release it under a different name. The decision comes down to the fact that the book is bound to sell more with the name JK Rowling attached to it. If proof were needed, the book has smashed pre-sales records both in shops and online. Whilst I am not suggesting that this decision was wholly down to Rowling, (no publisher in their right mind would allow her to change her name now) her feigned vulnerability only comes across as a desperate attempt to convince people to be easier on her. A very rich writer, who has become one the most popular British writers of the past few years, acting like a victim is unnecessary and incredibly frustrating. Regardless of how good or bad this novel turns out to be, it is bound to sell an insane number of copies. Her decision was in no way brave; it was merely prudent.
The second article (and the main reason behind this particular rant) came from the Huffington Post after they reopened the debate about Rowling someday penning a sequel/prequel/whatever to Harry Potter. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/new-harry-potter-book-_n_1916466.html) Once again Rowling is attempting to come across as fairly aloof on the matter and says she would only consider a return if she had “a great idea”. I think it’s safe to say that she will one day return to this series as the only reason I can see for the terribly written, over sentimental and clichéd epilogue is to set up loads of questions that need to be answered. Despite having read the seventh book multiple times I have only ever read the epilogue once all the way through (well once again for the purpose of this post but that is just how committed I am to my obscure and unseen little blog). The epilogue completely ruins the tone of the final book. I understand that Rowling may have felt that younger readers would prefer the fairytale happy ending that the last few pages provide for Harry but I think the final line of the final chapter offered a perfect finish. I can’t help but think that maybe a better writer would have had the self-control and artistic vision to see this. Instead, Rowling gets carried away and writes a disgustingly twee, pointless and utterly hilarious ending. I have yet to meet someone who has read the series and thinks that there was any need for it to be included. To make this more worthwhile than a simple bitch about a successful writer I will look at this piece in greater detail to rationalise my hatred.
First a reminder of how the series could and should have ended. Our heroic trio, having survived the battle, get rid of the Elder Wand and prepare for their future:
This ending, whilst being fairly sedate and unassuming, would have been an amazing ending to the series. The juxtaposition of Harry’s simple desires and dreams of a quiet life and the battle that has just raged in Hogwarts offers a great setting for saying farewell. The audience is given the chance to calm down after all of the chaos and emotional stress of the battle. After watching so many of the characters we have known for years risk their lives and lose their loved ones, the idea of a warm bed and a life without trouble is something both Harry and the readers can look forward to. We are offered a finite ending; evil has been defeated and life can carry on as it was meant to. Harry has finally been released from all of the duty and threats that have followed him for 17 years. The reader can leave him feeling satisfied that he is finally happy and peaceful.
The epilogue picks up nineteen years later at King’s Cross. We follow Harry and Ginny, now married, as they accompany their two sons, James and Albus, and their daughter, Lily, to platform nine and three-quarters. It is basically a way to explain that our favourite characters all get their happy ending. My main concern with the last few pages of the novel is that it is just a bit too neat. How likely is it that all of these characters marry each other and have children of the same ages? It’s all a bit too childish to believe that after all of those years and after the events of the war that everything would work out so perfectly for everyone. Rowling threw as many characters into this final scene as she possibly could. There is simply too much going on. What is supposed to give an insight into how everything works out for the main characters actually just rushes through a list of names and introduces us to some children with cringe-worthy names.
It is these names that people have the most problem with in terms of criticism of the epilogue and I have to agree. I understand that there was already a tradition of naming children after relatives within wizarding families in the book (the Weasley’s being a prime exampe) but this is taken to ridiculous extremes in these pages. Albus Severus, James and Lily Potter mark 2? Yuck. I could rant about how cheesey this is for pages but I will restrain myself. Rowling shows her naivety as a writer by allowing these clichés and sentimentality to take over her writing. I understand that there were a lot of people to honour for their work in fighting Voldermort but I think Rowling lets her own feelings for the characters take precedent over the needs of the novel. On top of that, I’ve never been a big fan of Harry’s sudden turn around on Severus. It’s ridiculous that a boy who has spent seven years hating his teacher and suspecting him of trying to kill him can suddenly get away with naming his child after him. It was always obvious that Severus was going to be a good guy in the end and it goes to highlight Harry’s stupidity that he didn’t sense this glaringly obvious ‘twist’. Harry’s change of opinion towards Severus after the latter’s death has always had the same sort of insincerity as a death-bed repentance. Faced with the realisation that the man he constantly warned people against and never trusted (despite the fact that he had the backing of the wizarding world’s most respected man and Voldermort’s main enemy) was actually working to protect and help him, Harry had to make a 180 turn and praise the man, whilst never actually portraying any real sorrow for his actions. At the same time, Severus died still disliking the boy. The pair would never have been pals had Severus survived and Harry’s decision to name his child after him is utterly transparent and kind of crazy. (I have recently found a very good visual representation of my annoyance which I think you should check out http://flying-foxx.deviantart.com/art/Harry-Potter-The-7-Stages-of-Denial-296726602?q=gallery%3Aflying-foxx%2F12945286&qo=10)Surely there are enough Weasley’s for them to name a child after? I mean Ginny and her family must have been pissed off that their grandchildren were only named after their other family. A family that they, nor their father, actually really knew.
The addition of these marriages and children only goes onto open the way for a future after the battle. The end of the last chapter was a strict ending. Evil was gone, Harry was happy, let’s go to bed. The future wasn’t even an issue. It didn’t matter because whatever happened Harry would be happy. The epilogue makes the future and the nineteen year gap a major issue. Rather than answering any questions about the future of the main characters it only raises them. For example, we see Draco and his family but, considering our last view of him was as an outcast, his apparent freedom in the wizarding world and acknowledgement of Harry only brings up issues of how he was able to redeem himself. After the death of Voldermort how were the Malfoys able to ingratiate themselves again? What happened between Harry and Draco to bring about this purported truce? It would have to be something fairly dramatic considering Draco almost killed Harry’s mentor, helped get Voldermort into Hogwarts and was, basically, a massive dick for seven years.
This isn’t the ending that the series deserved. There is too much going on and too much to consider. I understand Rowling’s desire to give Harry the happy and loving family that he had craved his whole life but there is no need to squash it into a three page epilogue. In fact, I would argue that this is exactly what Harry had at the end of the last chapter. He, Ron and Hermione were a family. Look back to their time at Grimmauld Place; we have the three of them living together with Kreacher as a family unit. Unconventional, yes, but a family unit all the same. Then there is the fact that Harry has pretty much been adopted into the Weasley family. Molly gave him a present every Christmas, gave him her brother’s watch for his seventeenth Birthday and allowed him to stay with their family for multiple holidays. Hell he even went to the wedding of Bill Weasley who he barely knew. Family was something that Harry was never lacking throughout the seven books. The fact that Rowling wanted to create this romantic ending for him only goes to undervalue all the times that she tried to convince her readers that he found the place he belonged at Hogwarts. What did that matter if the only real family is a two parent, three children kind of set up? If she had insisted on looking further into Harry’s future, it would perhaps have been better to dedicate an entire chapter to Harry’s family (and by extension Ron, Hermione and other members of the Weasley clan). At least then she could have allowed this to happen without having to throw a vast amount of information at the audience in one go.
The epilogue is not necessary in terms of the novel as a whole and is instead written as a shameless introduction to future novels. We have a scene that places all of our heroes together with their new lives without telling us anything about how they got there. There were so many issues to clean up after the final battle and the Ministry of Magic was in tatters. What happened to the death eaters and other supporters of Voldermort? What of the Muggle world? Did any student at Hogwarts ever sit a fucking exam? These are things that we now need to know. Had she ended the book at the final chapter the fans would still have hoped for more books but at the same time would have had a satisfying enough ending. The epilogue is nothing but a cringe inducing example of the shameless commercialism that overtook the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling has said herself that she would have preferred more time to work on certain novels but had to rush to get them published. It is the need to publish and make money off a loyal audience that led to one of the worst three pages of English fiction of the past few years. I’ve never been a huge fan of Rowling’s writing style but I will say there was definite improvement as the books when on. She gained confidence and came to understand herself as a writer. All of that work is undone in a matter of pages and a few nauseating names.
And in regards to the final line, what is the point? The fact that his scar no longer hurts is no more an indicator that Voldermort is dead than a cow lying down signifies bad weather. The moment that the part of Harry that was a horcrux was destroyed then his link with Voldermort was also destroyed. The pair could feel each other because Harry was himself a part of Voldermort. He took on his characteristics, his emotions and his dreams. No horcrux means no pain. I just pray that when the inevitable sequel is released Voldermort doesn’t come back to life to seek revenge on the trio’s children. That’s a bit to B movie for a series of books that meant so much to my childhood.