For the avoidance of any doubt, this review will almost certainly contain spoilers. Not because I want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment or anticipation of this or any other book, but because this is a review, not a preview, and I can’t effectively self-censor simply to avoid giving away any details of the plot. You have been warned! If you don’t want to find out what happens in ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, stop reading now!
There are a couple of fairly obvious things that need to be pointed out, just to get them out of the way. First, this is a script, not a novel. The description passages you would find in a novel are missing, as is all the internal monologues through which most of the story telling is done. So the reader has to do a lot more imaginative work, and at times this is difficult – my reaction was often “how are they going to stage that?” (for example the scenes in the lake). Second, this is not written by J K Rowling. It is based on a short story (unpublished?) she co-wrote with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, but she did not write the script (that credit goes to Thorne). It seems likely she had overall control of the material, and has endorsed the play as part of the official Harry Potter “canon”. So in effect she has out-sourced the whole messy business of writing. Lots of author’s estates do this after the author has died, but I can’t think of a time when a living author has handed over their creative process to a team like this.
The reviews of the stage production have all been exceptional, and I am sure plans for the film version will be in development as we speak. But as a book, and as a story, this was hugely disappointing. What is most disappointing is the lack of any creativity or originality whatsoever. I need to qualify that slightly. The original novels were all set is a very familiar world, the universe of English boarding school stories of the 1930s, following in the tradition of Frank Richards (Greyfriars/Bunter), Anthony Buckeridge (the Jennings stories) and of course Enid Blyton. These writers were masters of the craft of children’s story writing, and established a strong tradition in which a young child was whisked away to a remote boarding school which they originally find alien and a bit scary, but where they quickly settle in, make firm friends, and have a whale of a time, turning from slightly incomplete characters into fully rounded people, with friends for life. This was in part a way of preparing children about the go to boarding school for the perils ahead, and in part wish fulfilment for those left behind. Midnight feasts, fierce teachers and a grumpy janitor, school sports and house points, Rowling borrowed the lot, and transposed it onto the world of magic. Even here she used a very familiar set of ideas and characters – witches and wizards, unicorns and centaurs, ghosts, giants and mermaids. If she had left it at that then I doubt the books would have done well, to say the least. But Rowling added to this very comfortable, familiar mix a strong thread of genuinely original ideas. Dementors, the Marauders Map, the invisibility cloak, the Shrieking Shack and the Whomping Willow, chocolate frogs and butterbeer, Durmstrang and Diagon Alley (probably my favourite joke in the whole series) – these are the things that made the early Harry Potter stories special, when combined with Rowling’s ability to create a strong set of central characters and tell a cracking adventure story. In the later novels a genuine sense of threat is added to the mix to make the stories more mature, as Rowling’s audience grew with her characters.
But there isn’t a single new magical concept or idea in the Cursed Child whatsoever. All of the plot developments revolve around the misuse of a time-turner, which Rowling already used comprehensively in Prisoner. If anyone else had pitched this idea – that people go back in time and accidentally change the course of history (shock horror) they would have been laughed out of the publisher’s office. And with one exception, who stands out shouting “look at me, I am a plot device”, none of the central characters are new (and hardly any of the peripheral ones to be honest).
When I read the book’s title, the Cursed Child, I thought it likely that the reader/play goer would be presented with a series of candidates for this title, with the plot twist being that the real Cursed Child would be someone else, someone peripheral. Rowling does this twice in the original series – in Chamber of Secrets, when the heir of Slytherin turns out not to be Harry, nor Draco, but Tom Riddle, and later in Half Blood Prince, where she repeats the process of submitting candidates for the role, only for the real prince to be revealed in the closing chapters. So I was on the look out for candidates for the Cursed Child early on, and when a (new) character is introduced they really might as well have had a big flashing badge on their floppy hat lit up in big neon letters “CURSED CHILD HERE FOLKS”. And so it was.
The book aspires to be about the father and son relationship between Harry and Albus, and this is done earnestly and honestly – it’s not too saccharine. The close and affectionate relationship between Albus and Scorpio will no doubt generate a million fan pieces where they eventually get together – the bromance was pretty intense already, and for a short while I genuinely wondered whether the author was going to be brave and let them come out together, but sadly, no (or at least not yet).
In reading around for this blog, I came across this review in the Atlantic, which sums up a lot of my feelings about the Cursed Child:
“Cursed Child…is an act of overreach that feels mandated not by Rowling’s desire to fill out details but by an entertainment industry intent on reviving and rebooting anything that’s ever made money….
…Cursed Child, for all its compelling twists and turns, at many points feels like reading well-crafted fan fiction—the names are the same, and the characters feel familiar, but it’s apparent that they’re imitations nonetheless. It’s entirely possible that seeing the stage play…is a different experience, and certainly there’s no sign of anything but a furious demand for tickets. But for readers, in agreeing to revisit characters whose stories have already been deftly wrapped up, Rowling risks undermining the powerful legacy she gave them in the first place.”