This review was originally posted at Goodreads and imported here later on with next to no spell/grammar checking.
Turns out, I’ve never written the review for one of my favourite books of all time. Having just decided to read it in French this time, here’s the long overdue collection of thoughts.
I will discuss the book itself (the first one of the series), the French version and finally, assorted thoughts about the books' wider impacts and Rowling’s later sentiments that sour the whole thing.
Harry Potter is an eleven-year-old orphan living with his aunt, uncle and cousin all of whom neglect and abuse him. When weird things start happening, Harry learns that he is a wizard who was accepted to a magical boarding school. He finds actual friends (and some enemies) there, goes through a school year that’s both magical and mundane and learns what happened to his parents and why everyone in the wizarding world knows his name.
The book is absolutely beautifully put together. On what must have been around a tenth re-read, the beginning feels to drag a bit, but once in Hogwarts, the book was as charming and powerful now in my mid thirties as it was when I was 15 or so.
It paints a world that is colourful and detailed enough to feel believable, full of wonderful characters, great mysteries, solid plot, jokes and a lot of wonderful moments — happy and sad. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s really well put together.
I laughed and I cried despite knowing the whole thing by heart.
In addition to all that, it is just really well written. I’ve often read books with amazing ideas whose writing just wasn’t there. They’re still great, but something’s off — either the pacing, odd word choices, plot structure or whatever.
Not here. The prose, dialogues and poetry are all brilliant. It’s just a joy to read. Rowling absolutely has a way with words and as her later books showed, she is a great writer who managed to transcend her "childhood book author" framing.
One of the rare, unexpected delights are all the proper names. Of people, things, places. All the Hogwarts houses, "Hogwarts" itself, the teachers, everything. They’ve got the punch, the shape and feeling. Harry Potter rides the onomatopoeia wave flawlessly.
There are genuine points of criticism one can level at the whole series, but to dismiss the books out of the gate as some critics have done is just completely missing the mark.
The audiobook is narrated by Stephen Fry and made brilliant as a result. It is a joy to listen to his voice and it just elevates the book to another level. If you can, do read the Stephen Fry audiobook.
The French Version
Speaking of words and audiobooks. The reason for this re-read of 2021 is wanting to see if I can improve my (passive) French a little. After having done four years of French at high school, I’ve always felt I should actually learn the thing.
So I’ve picked up the French audiobook and started reading it. You will be surprised in no way whatsoever that it didn’t quite work. I picked up a word here and there, but I was lost more often than I was following.
Switching to reading a chapter in English followed by the same chapter in French was much better though my current French level is clearly not really up for the task yet.
Going back to Rowling’s choice of words and sounds: the localisation was actually quite decent. Slytherin became Serpentard, Hufflepuff is Poufsouffle, etc. which sounds great. Fits the French feeling but still packs the same punch.
But some of the other translations felt a bit weird to me — most noticeably Severus Snape being called Severus Rogue. But nothing really bad that would take me out of it.
The actual experience of reading it in French was… a not an immediate win. I need to pay a lot of conscious attention. I think it was useful — I got the language into my ears a little, definitely picked up some new words and phrases, but not as many as I’d hoped. I don’t suddenly understand French, nor am I confident enough to read the next book all alone.
Since I’ve read this as an audiobook, I need to reiterate how stellar Stephen Fry’s reading is. Bernard Giraudeau who did the French narration is not terrible, but Fry’s just on another level.
Some of the voices and sounds the narrator does (e.g. giving Ron a lisp) make the book harder to listen to.
The book’s production makes things even worse. There’s a scene with centaurs about two thirds into the book. And every time a centaur spoke, they first made a horse noise like neighing, snorting etc. Now famously, centaurs have human heads with human speech and wouldn’t generally be expected to make such noises. Nor does the source book give any indication that they do. They are perfectly capable of human speech.
This may sound like a small thing, but I found it incredibly distracting.
Harry Potter will forever have a special place in my heard. In addition to me just loving the story and the characters, it is the first book I’ve read in English. And it transcended my understanding of the language from where I could read individual words but not much else to actually feeling it. Knowing phrases and sentence structures. It was the first steps towards it feeling somewhat akin to a native tongue. To me being able to think in English. To using it directly rather than translating things to my native language as an intermediary.
It has also influenced my outlook in life. "It is our choices far more than our abilities that show what we truly are", for example still resonates deeply.
And while again, there are things one can criticise, overall this is a book with a really healthy outlook on life.
So it was deeply, frustratingly, incredibly disappointing that the author’s own choices did not live up to what she set up in the book.
J. K. Rowling’s anti-trans (or more accurately: pro pureblood woman) crusade has been a huge shock to me. One of the final nails in the coffin of what has been a really crummy year.
Misunderstanding or feeling threatened by trans people is a sentiment that a lot of people (men and women) share. But it’s so much more harmful when it’s coming out from someone with such a huge following, influence and money and ready to put it all to use to solve the problem. Someone who literally shaped the minds of millions of children and young adults. Someone who in many other aspects seems to be quite a decent human being despite becoming filthy rich.
Someone who’s stood up against injustice in her books and in real life.
Someone who’s pretended to be a man to see how the publishing apparatus reacts to men differently than to women. Of course, using a secret pseudonym is absolutely not the same thing as being transgender, but fucking come on!
I can’t claim this has ruined Harry Potter for me. I love those books. Still do so fucking much. But it has ruined JKR for me.
Kill your heroes indeed.