As Rowling sorts out her universe

Mon 01 Aug 2016

We last met Harry Potter nine years ago, standing on ‘platform 9¾’ amidst a jumble of friends and family and general good cheer. J.K. Rowling, with a grown-up Potter and his pain-free scar and a whole lot of giddy children, was giving us a kind of solid, reassuring end — a happy end. Back then, I remember wondering about the epilogue, unsure of its need at all. I remember others feeling the same way; a “controversial” epilogue, it was called. It played with time, so that we were plucked right out of battle-scarred Hogwarts and transported to everyone playing happy families. It was suddenly 19 years later, and it was a lot to take in — sweet, but also disorienting.

The new and old

So now, 19 years later in the book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Hachette) is a lot to take in too. Sunday morning, when I went and picked up my copy, I was suddenly aware of just how much time had passed, and how much had changed since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. The series has changed too; its latest instalment is a play, and the book a rehearsal script. Till 2007, the world read the same books; later watched the same movies. That Cursed Child is a play means that many of us will never really get to watch it; that our experience of the eighth Harry Potter will always feel slightly incomplete, perhaps even a little less magical.

We might be older, and our world different, but a few things are still the same. Take, for example, the fact that growing older has done nothing to change that greedy, frantic way in which I read my Potters. It hasn’t reduced that lump in my throat when Dumbledore’s name comes up, or lessened any appreciation and awe of Professor McGonagall. Rowling’s magical universe is still intact, and if you jump in, it’s a bit like going back in time.

What are we going back to, though? Is Cursed Child a spin-off, a stand-alone book, or a bona fide sequel? We know that while it’s based on an original story by Rowling, it has other names in the mix. The story itself is a collaboration between Rowling, English screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne, and director John Tiffany. Considering that we are used to Rowling playing a solo hand so far, this obviously changes things a little bit, and immediately sets Cursed Child apart from the rest of the books in the series. In this story, others have had a say, and while this might not necessarily be a bad thing, it is certainly different. In this sense, perhaps this play/book is a stand-alone, standing just outside of the seven-part series.

But then there is the story of Cursed Child itself, which literally picks up where the last book left off. Harry and his friends and family are at ‘platform 9 ¾’, seeing off the children — Harry and Ginny’s sons James and Albus, who is anxious about being sorted into the wrong house; the expectedly named Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son; Ron and Hermione’s clearly precocious daughter Rose; and a few others, as they board the Hogwarts Express. Our old friends, Harry and Ron and Hermione, have also moved on in life. Ron runs his brother’s joke shop, Harry is the Head of Magical Law Enforcement, and Hermione is the Minister of Magic (anything less would have been just plain injustice). The stage is set, and we meet our key players.

This continuity, and its familiarity, is reassuring. After all, we know these characters so well that it’s impossible not to care immediately, especially for those who cared a lot in the past. Cursed Child pulls you in at the right point, because when we left all those years ago, we had left with a few questions. What if Albus Severus Potter really did get sorted into Slytherin? What kind of person was Draco’s son? Would Rose be as smart as her mother? And more than anything else, was it really over? None of those questions particularly bothered me, but I wouldn’t have been opposed to having some of them answered.

In Cursed Child , almost all these questions are answered. Sometimes it’s not the answer you expected, and sometimes it’s exactly how you thought it would be. The plot — of which I really don’t want to give much away — seems like Rowling’s attempt to understand her own universe — to explore all the what-ifs and the alternate endings she discarded for her final choice.

Almost from the beginning, you know the basic tropes this story will use — the “great weight” of Albus Potter’s legacy, his fraught relationship with a father whose shadow he cannot seem to escape, the looming threat of dark magic drawing closer, and once again, like old times, a breathless, fast-paced, beautifully constructed adventure — only this time, Harry, Hermione and Ron are not alone.

Fluidity of time

A lot of the story plays with the concept of time, and Rowling uses the device to her advantage. The fluidity of time allows her to revisit the past and reconstruct it; it lets her experiment with alternate endings, explore possibilities she hadn’t before, and show us the worlds she didn’t get a chance to create before. It is fascinating, if a tad rushed at times, and perhaps even a little confusing.

Of course, a lot of that confusion comes from reading a script. It means quick, precise stage directions instead of detailed descriptions, and a dialogue-based story that takes away from character insights, internal monologues, and more. It’s difficult to feel as intensely about this story and its characters, as we are used to, and as for the new characters it introduces, they intrigue but don’t leave a very lasting mark.

Keeping all of this in mind, the fact that Cursed Child still manages to hold your undivided attention says a lot about the story it tells. Of course, it also says a lot about us. In whatever form, or style, or medium — we’ve made sure that the boy who lived, lives on.


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