I discovered the Harry Potter books at some point when I was in Year Nine at school, between September 1998 and July 1999, shortly before the third one came out and Pottermania went stratospheric. I remember taking the first one in to English to do a book review – the book in question actually belonged to my sister; she was the one who pre-ordered each new book as it came along and she was the one who took them with her when she moved out. So these books are not “my childhood” as they were for so many people on the internet but I suppose they were my teen years. I now own my own set of Harry Potter books (and they all match! My sister had the first two in paperback and the rest in hardback and I love that my set match, even if they’re not the original covers) and I re-read them every year or two.
Having pledged to do more book reviews and having read the Philosopher’s Stone back in early January, let’s get started with the Chamber of Secrets.
This book is back before overarching themes and stories really began to get heavy. Of course, we have all the usual suspects: Snape & Malfoy being villains, Voldemort trying to learn what Harry’s survival secret was, the beginning of the romance with Ginny, Harry’s celebrity status, Hagrid’s monsters, Dumbledore being mysterious but at this point, it could still stand alone as a fun magical children’s book.
I mean, arguably, it’s the darkest book of the whole series. A monster stalking the school, periodically trying to kill someone (and halfway succeeding; Colin Creevey spends nearly two-thirds of his first year at school Petrified), a first-year possessed by Absolute Evil who goes around killing chickens and writing in blood on the walls and not even knowing it and no evidence that any of the parents give a hoot about their children being trapped in a castle with a murderer – I mean, my parents aren’t really the hysterical kind but I think they’d have yanked me out after the second attack. But then, in the first book there was a troll on the loose, a serial killer breaks in during the third book, a pupil is murdered in the fourth, hell, the Headmaster is murdered in the school in one of the books and so on, so maybe this is absolutely normal for Hogwarts and all the wizarding parents shrug and say things like “it’s no worse than anything that happened when I was there”. But what about the Muggle parents? Maybe they all assume that their children are making it up or that they’ve misunderstood something about this new world they’ve been suddenly introduced to.
For me, it’s the only book that’s given me nightmares – and when I was more than old enough to know better. These days, the slug chapter is the high-octane nightmare fuel but luckily, I dreamed about the Edinburgh Fringe last night after I finished the book.
The good bits in the book:
Lockhart. I know he’s a terrible teacher and a terrible person but that doesn’t mean he’s not fun to read about. I can just see him prancing around in robes in an assortment of eye-catching colours, preening over his hair, cutting out his own newspaper appearances and feeling threatened by the presence of Harry, who is so much more famous with no effort whatsoever. Not that I believe Lockhart turns up the fame thing to try to put Harry down – I think he really does go around with stacks of signed photos in his pockets and judging by Mrs Weasley & Hermione’s reactions to him, he does get idolised wherever he goes. But isn’t it fun to have someone like that trying to be a teacher?
The Weasley summer. Harry spent his first magical summer discovering that he’s a wizard and that there’s a world of magic where he belongs. And then he spends his second magical summer as part of a big noisy magical family – and not because he’s famous, simply because he’s Ron’s friend who needs looking after. I love the Weasleys, although I’m looking forward to Ginny being more than a little girl incapacitated by a crush. I love Fred & George’s boisterousness, I love Percy’s pompousness (I love Percy!) and I’m really looking forward to meeting Bill and Charlie later on. And Mrs Weasley – the archetypal mum, who yells at her sons and fusses over Harry in the same breath.
Myrtle. A moody emo teenage ghost – Myrtle is great! Nearly Headless Nick is as well – although I do appreciate that he can’t join the Headless Hunt and I do appreciate why he’s annoyed about it. But I like that he tries to help Harry out, particularly when he persuades Peeves to drop the Vanishing Cabinet over Filch’s office to get Harry out of trouble.
Malfoy. I love me a bit of jealous Malfoy. Potter got onto the Quidditch team, it’s not fair. I wish someone had pointed out that it doesn’t matter that the Slytherin team have got racing brooms – if they can’t catch and attack and defend, it doesn’t matter how fast they’re going. I love Malfoy pouting that he’s not allowed to help the Heir of Slytherin.
The slug scene.
The Chamber of Secrets. Voldemort left behind a secret diary containing part of his soul, so he could go on with his work killing people using the Basilisk. Somehow that diary fell into Lucius Malfoy’s hands. How did he know what it was and how it worked? Did he sit there writing in the diary and talking to Tom Riddle? Did they hatch the plan together? Who did he talk to about the plan? I can’t see any way that Dobby would have seen the writing so he must have overheard something. How did Lucius get away with literally planning to murder school children? Did he get away with it because no one was killed, only Petrified? What benefit was there to him in the whole scheme? At this point, Voldemort is a tattered, nearly-dead thing. No one is serving him, evenly secretly, except Barty Crouch Jr and he hasn’t popped his head into the story yet. Did Lucius know he’d be able to drag himself out of the diary? Did he think that a memory of Voldemort was enough to re-ignite the Death Eaters and Voldemort and co? Was he hinging his entire plan on Ginny Weasley being the sort of person who would write in a diary? By sixteen, Tom Riddle was obsessed with Horcruxes and wizarding memorabilia – why is he using a Muggle diary? Is it nothing more than a clue to the readers about his Muggle background? And yes, if the Chamber of Secrets was built a thousand years ago, why is the snake using the plumbing that only came along in Victorian times?
The houses. I went to secondary school in the UK. We have houses over here. Kids are randomly and arbitrarily sorted into houses. Younger siblings go in the same house as older ones, otherwise there’s no system to it whatsoever. I’ve had a look at local school uniforms and they all seem to have different coloured house ties but my school appears to have been unusual in that the logo on our jumpers varied in colour by house as well (although nowadays they wear blazers and as far as I can see from the newsletter, they all have the same silver logo). Anyway, yes, we had inter-house rivalries and people have always squabbled over which house is best (Gault had all the best sportspeople and Portland almost all the stupid ones) but our houses were a mixed bunch. We were not divided into four random personality types, which no one actually seemed to match except a token representative (brave Harry, evil Malfoy, pleasant Cedric, bookworm Luna)and we didn’t have an entire house of people who were derided as evil from the moment they stepped into school at eleven. In this book we have the monster of Slytherin, the heir of Slytherin, we have people pointing out “hasn’t anyone noticed that the Slytherins haven’t been attacked?” No, the house system is all kinds of messed up.
So, in conclusion, this is the last book that really feels like it could stand alone and it’s fun and dark and a bit scary. We get genuinely incompetent adults – in so many children’s books, things like the Famous Five, the adults are made incompetent so the children can be brilliant, but here we have Lockhart in the starring adult role being actually incompetent and I love the grim way they drag him into the Chamber of Secrets, partly to humiliate him, partly to scare him and partly because despite everything, I think they still see an adult as a useful thing to have around and they still believe he’s almost as capable as he claims to be.
In the next book: the wizarding world opens up, evil takes a step closer and things get a little more personal.