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Customer Review

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Complex, 11 Aug. 2003
This review is from: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) (Hardcover)
There has been a distinct strain of bemusement in reactions to this book. It's as if people recognize the features of the first four books - the cracking plot, great characters, hilarious episodes - but sense that there is something, well, a little bit different about this one.
And they'd be right. Because this is a more mature, more serious, more political book than the previous volumes in the series. The problem is that people don't like to recognize the fact that books are political. Especially children's books. Many adults are absolutely desperate to read their favourite kid's classics as fluffy, cutesy, comforting works, which have no engagement with their "real" world. So when a text like this comes along, which mixes contemporary satire with fantastic and magical elements, they become slightly uncomfortable.
The problem for this type of reader is that it cannot be denied that this book deals with some highly contentious current issues. Most obviously, it's a satire on government regulation of secondary education. But it also has some serious things to say about action and appeasement, about truth, narrative and the press and, above all, about cultural imperialism.
For example: the house elf plot. In book four this seemed to fizzle out into acquiescence in the "naturalness" of their oppression. But in book five it becomes the lynchpin of an impassioned argument for respecting difference. The central image of the novel (cleverly used by Bloomsbury on the back cover) is the statue at the Ministry of Magic - look out for Rowling's rather wonderful description of Harry's reaction when he first sees it. From a distance, it looks great, but closer to, Harry is able to see all of its weaknesses as a representation of the different magical beings. Measuring the extent to which it falls short of his own personal experiences of other "races", Harry gains an insight into the ideological work which the statue performs. Art, in this novel, is political. It's a real "Tom Brown" moment, - the fact that Harry's adventures have taken him outside of the normal confines of the wizarding world enables him to achieve an important insight into the workings of inequality.
Similarly, there are other elements which one wouldn't expect to find in a fluffy children's novel - in particular, Rowling's trademark treatment of pain. Few children's authors can write about the suffering created by death and loss in children's lives with such pathos. But here we also have a darker side of pain, the operations of torture and sadism in the actions of both Umbridge and Belletrix. Rowling manages to achieve the impossible, dealing with such subjects in a manner suitable to the youth of her readership, while maintaining a sense of their deeply disturbing nature. And while the much-hyped death of the "major character" is understated, Rowling uses it to ground Dumbledore's extraordinary view, which could come straight out of Dickens's Christmas books: that it is suffering which acts as the ground of humanity.
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