The first time I tried to write this review, I kept on thinking of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. in terms of children’s books – and picturing Rowling’s audience, and how they have grown and the book grew up with it. But the more I kept reading it, I could not get over what sort of pseudo-academic dirge came out of me and onto these virtual pages. Screw whether my daughter would like it (she would, but maybe not now when she’d be more likely to tear or chew it), this is a terrific entertainment, a worthy sequel to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, taking Harry’s world and not just re-hashing, but expanding the world and raising the stakes. Along the way, we see Harry start to have to really contend with things, and with it author JK Rowling sneakily tells a powerful story about personal identity.
Just like in the first book, we start with the Dursleys. Harry is back here spending the summer after his long, strange, twisted first year at Hogwarts. As you might recall, and certainly Rowling recaps, Harry is not welcome with his aunt and uncle – pure Muggles – who have a great distrust of magic, let alone Petunia Dursley’s witch sister’s orphaned son. They have taken care of him, but clearly their increasingly portly son Dudley has taken the brunt of the love. Once again, Rowling shows traces of Roald Dahl in the portrayal of a truly odious, bourgeois in the worst sort of way, family. Little Harry stands out here, and you can see a world he is intensely uncomfortable in. How can a little boy fit in – certainly that need for acceptance from others is understandable. He clearly is not a welcome part of this clan. It is not too much of a spoiler to say that Harry returns to Hogwarts and gets to escape the Dursleys – and like in the first book, it is one of the best scenes in the book.
So, hooray, Harry is back at Hogwarts – but of course it can’t be that simple. The faculty continues to change, with the famous (and as it turns out, a classic “famous academic”) Gilderoy Lockhart taking over as Dark Arts Defense teacher. Of course the previous dark arts teacher tried to kill Harry (well, ok not HIM specifically) so much suspicion is warranted. Of course, Snape inspired much suspicion in the first book – so here we have some expansion of the canvas by Rowling. The scenes with Lockhart are funny – and his continual suspicions with the Famous Harry Potter are very inconvenient for Harry, who is just trying to be a regular student.
But that is just the staff – what about the students? Yeah, you’d think that saving Hogwarts once would earn him lasting affection, but of course for Harry Potter it is not that simple. Hermione, Ron and Harry grow closer than ever, but here the book develops the dynamic with Draco Malfoy, Harry’s rival from Slytherin. He also makes a very useful guy to suspect when things go wrong.
And sure enough, things go wrong – again. (if nothing else, these books have been poor advertisements for Hogwarts as a safe campus for children – or anyone else) We see people coming up petrified, and Harry being inconveniently located when the crimes are discovered. In particular, during one time, when he tries to convince those of his innocence, some of his wizard heritage ends up doing the opposite. The kid that wants to fit in so badly in a world where he has stuck out like a sore thumb, it gets even worse.
This does not hint at the additional layers of plot of course. There is a diary and an old student, and of course another encounter with Voldemort. There is another chance to save Hogwarts – although I suspect Harry will have to reprove himself again. There is also Ron’s little sister matriculating, as well as a haunted toilet, as well as a hint about Hagrid’s past and his expulsion from the school. There is just a LOT more here compared to the much more linear plot of the first book. I don’t think the book is any more difficult to read or follow for sure – but it clearly assumes the audience can handle a bit more, and as a non-kiddo reader, I am grateful. I felt a letdown when the book was over – and that of course, is the best compliment of them all.