Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
read by Jim Dale
The first three Harry Potter books and the last four are very different from each other; books one through three focus on mysteries, while the other four focus on the rise of Voldemort and Harry’s struggle against him. They’re also aimed at younger children—essentially, however old Harry and company are is the target age for the reader. (As I’ve said before, I feel ridiculously lucky to have been, more or less, in that range while the books were coming out; Lord knows I would haven’t the willpower to savor the experience were I a child now. And we’re all better off that I’m an actual human being now.) Of the first three, Chamber of Secrets was never my favorite—Sorcerer’s Stone got us into this world and Prisoner of Azkaban introduced us to the first generation that I’m so fond of, so I often just ignored it. I had trouble motivating myself to listen, but it turned out alright in the end.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets finds Harry desperately wanting to return to Hogwarts after another awful summer with the Dursleys. But his return is delayed by Dobby, a house elf servant who pleads with Harry not to return to Hogwarts, because it isn’t safe. Harry ignores this warning and, after an incident with a flying Ford Anglia, returns to Hogwarts for another school year. But all is not well at Hogwarts—something is roaming the halls and Petrifying Muggle-born students, leaving behind messages about the Heir of Slytherin and the supposedly mythical Chamber of Secrets. As the faculty, hindered by the incredibly vain new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, flounders, it’s up to Harry and company to solve the mystery and save the school.
I have to admit, part of the reason that I found Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets difficult to get through at first was second-hand embarrassment. I have a friend who sometimes can’t watch certain films or television shows because it gets so bad for her, and this is the first time that I’ve really understood what she goes through. Every time Dobby turned up, I started getting really embarrassed for Harry, because I knew what kind of painful and humiliating shenanigans were in store for him. I have to hand it to Rowling; it’s remarkable how she makes such an annoying character here so sympathetic in later books. But once I got past that, which was my main memory of the book, I found myself enjoying the horror of the novel.
While Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the novel that opens up the series and proves to us that the war is on, I was surprised by how dark this book is. Harry looks forward to returning to the one place on Earth where he feels wanted, if not loved, and finds it in danger of closing down forever. While I’m not fond of the narrow worldbuilding in the first few books (which is probably why I’m so fond of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where we meet other schools), it actually works for the atmosphere—Hogwarts is Harry’s only home. It also pushes the parallels with Tom Riddle; consider that Riddle’s fifth year was 1942 and imagine being sent back to a orphanage in London during the Blitz every summer. Tom literally had no other option in that situation, and the narrow worldbuilding forces Harry into the same situation. And, while everything ends happily (although Ginny definitely ends up with permanent trauma), there are truly terrifying moments; I can’t get the image of twelve year old Harry leaning over eleven year old Ginny’s body whispering that she can’t be dead, she just can’t. It’s an interesting direction for a sequel to an otherwise whimsical children’s book, and foreshadows the darkness ahead.
The cast expands somewhat, introducing us to Ginny Weasley properly, Lucius Malfoy, Tom Riddle, and one of Rowling’s most hateable characters, Gilderoy Lockhart. I have no beef with Kenneth Branaugh’s performance of Lockhart in the film adaptation, but once I discovered that Hugh Grant was briefly up for the role, that’s all I see—teeth and insincerity as far as the eye can see. It’s beautiful. Watching him get his comeuppance in the climax at the hands of two preteen boys is just lovely. I can’t recall if we ever encounter him again in the books, but I hope we do. Our main trio continues to develop, especially with the threat of death looming over them, although Neville gets left in the dust a little. I can’t help it, guys, I just really love Neville, especially in hindsight. I mean, there’s little else to say about Chamber of Secrets—the issues I mentioned in my review of Sorcerer’s Stone are still present, and it’s basically a horror mystery whimsical enough to hand off to a child, although there are plenty of things that make an appearance here that become hugely important later. While it’s improved in my memory, it’s still never going to be my favorite.
Jim Dale seems much more connected with the material this time around, although he still retains the irritating habit of calmly saying lines that are specifically tagged as screams or exclamations. We start seeing more of Dale’s range, what with the Basilisk, Tom Riddle, and Gilderoy Lockhart. I was delighted to find that he finally gave Seamus Finnegan an Irish accent, which is about time. He’s a very good reader, once you get used to him—calm (although he can be too calm) and steady. I still hate the introductory and exit music, but that’s a combination of it not being “Hedwig’s Theme” (which wasn’t written at the time of recording, obviously) and the fact I hate aimless music in audiobooks. Ah, well, onto Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban!
Bottom line: Harry’s second outing is a horror mystery whimsical enough to hand off to a child. While it’ll never be my favorite in the series, it’s still satisfying. Jim Dale expands his vocal range, although the supremely annoying audiobook theme is still present.
I rented this audiobook from the public library.