'Is Little Nell dead?" rose the cry along America's wharves in 1841, from readers awaiting the last installment of Charles Dickens's "The Old Curiosity Shop." Perhaps not since the fate of Little Nell hung in the balance has a book been as hotly awaited as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and last in J.K. Rowling's series.
We are lucky to live in the time of a novelist as gripping, unpredictable, and wildly popular as Dickens himself. Though there is plenty about the book to critique, I won't go so far as to give crucial plot elements away. Unlike every age that will follow ours , we read the Potter books for the first time, and the freshness is part of their charm.
Rowling once described these books as being, in a deep sense, all one work. Is this last volume a good book? In many ways, yes. There are thrilling chase scenes, glowing tableaus ("moths began to swoop under the canopy, now lit with floating golden lanterns"), new magical effects (the Thief's Downfall, a cataract of water), and revelations by the dozen. Rowling still has a brilliant ear for dialogue and knows how to evoke dark, complicated emotions, as when "Harry felt as though a brick had slid down through his chest onto his stomach. He remembered. . . ."
No author since Dickens has been able to conjure so completely both the eerie and the ordinary genius that resides in places. Harry visits the bedroom of his late godfather, Sirius Black, and Rowling writes "There was a large bed with a carved wooden headboard, a tall window obscured by long velvet curtains, and a chandelier thickly coated in dust with candle stubs still resting in its sockets, solid wax hanging in frostlike drips."
"Hallows" has the driving, almost galloping motion of all the other books. Indeed, it moves faster, and covers more ground, than the others -- perhaps too much speed, too much ground. It is sloppier, broader, more lax. For the first time, some magical effects feel forced. For the first time, too, there are clunky sentences, abrupt character turnarounds, plot holes, even sentimentality. Younger readers, especially, may not be prepared for the number of deaths, for the violence, torture, and maiming. This book largely revolves around three 17-year-olds, truly on their own. Is this a children's book, then? No. It is a book for children to grow into, the last brick in a mansion they can enter as children, and leave as young adults.
The book spotlights the twin great themes of death and love. Images of graves, ghouls, ghosts, corpses, and bereavement haunt its pages. Even a friend's empty bed "was like a dead body in the way it wanted to draw his eye." Rowling doesn't gloss over such matters, writing, "It was not, after all, easy to die." But brotherhood and its partner , friendship , are equally repeated and transformed through the book, as when "What appeared to be golden chains wove around the pictures, linking them together, but . . . were actually one word, repeated a thousand times in golden ink: friends . . . friends . . . friends. . . ."
Harry and his friends confront the forces of evil here. But the book's mightiest lines carry a double-edged meaning, tiltable toward good, or bad: "MAGIC IS MIGHT," "For the Greater Good," and, carved on James and Lily Potter's grave, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
It is easy to feel, rising through the pages of this final book, what must be Rowling's own bereavement at finishing this series. Perhaps that also is what helps to make this book feel somewhat ragged, and unfinished. To have ended it perfectly, compactly, fully, would have been more heartbreaking than what we have here -- a holy, not an unholy, mess.
Still, the series' accomplishment is staggering. It has renewed literature, as great writings always do. It has changed assumptions about what books can achieve. Some critics blame the Potter series for commercializing the culture of children's book publishing. But that movement long preceded the series. Nearly all of the series' influence has been to the good. Impoverished and unheard-of writers can thank Rowling for easing their way. Because of these books, millions of young readers have read more than 4,000 pages of high-level prose. They did it without complaining -- waiting in long lines, in costume, at midnight. The so-called genre books, including fantasy and science fiction, are no longer scorned as the weird sisters or homely poor relations of literature.
Like Dickens, Rowling found her genius in what John Gardner called "mutt fiction," a mongrel of one kind of low-brow literature bred with something loftier . She has added elements of horror, detective, and mystery fiction, and even, in this last book, popular, violent action movies.
In "Hollows," one only occasionally glimpses the golden glow, manic invention, and humor prevalent in the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Of course, that book had terrors too, overlying shadows. But consider a photograph of a young man at 17, and then that same face at 11. All great children's books grow with the child. My son was (and is) about Harry's age. The Potter series has emerged at nearly the perfect pace for its young readers. It need surprise no one that this last book has scenes and images painful for the average 11-year-old. But let that child read slowly enough, and the seventh book will someday fit him, too.
It is rare that an author transforms the everyday landscape and language. We now live in a world of Hogwarts and Azkaban, Muggles and Dementors. Rowling's series contains the power of myth, it speaks to our deepest desires and fears, and it serves as a sweeping metaphor for the anxieties of our age.
Liz Rosenberg, a children's book author, teaches English and creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton.