Literary Fiction Books

Harry Potter and the prisoners of the mind: Review of Keshava Guha’s ‘Accidental Magic’

This debut novel of writer and journalist Keshava Guha follows the lives of four readers from different parts of the world and from different cultural backgrounds, whose paths converge in their shared appreciation of the wildly popular Harry Potter books.

Kannan, an Indian immigrant to the U.S., is the stereotypical socially awkward IT professional not yet familiar with American cultural mores. Rebecca, an accomplished, self-assured Harvard graduate, is faced with what is probably the first chapter of instability in her otherwise predictable life. Malathi, an English student from Chennai, is jolted out of the quaint reverie that is her life in Chennai, by unfamiliar stirrings of passion. Curtis Grimmet, an enigmatic and eccentric older mentor figure, looms above them all.

Passive players

While superficially Harry Potter serves as the common thread binding them together, on a deeper level, it is a palpable sense of wanting to find oneself that drives the protagonists to immerse themselves deeper and deeper in a digital world of larger-than-life intrigue and romance — something Rebecca so aptly describes as an “accidental magic”, which transcends the literary.

Accidental Magic ’s sparse cast of principal players are searching for something to give their lives purpose and meaning — a quintessentially human endeavour, one could argue. However, their energies seem directed inwards: their primary interactions are with themselves, in the form of internal monologues and recollections. This solipsism frames the entire book’s narrative, as characters speak to themselves and the reader, but not so much to one another.

Apart from their participation in the world of Harry Potter fandom, the protagonists are passive players in a world of rapid change. Experiences happen to them, they do not consciously seek them out. For all its focus on human relationships, Accidental Magic fails to convincingly portray the complex interplay that underlies interpersonal interactions. Indeed, its protagonists are half-formed, not quite self-aware individuals capable of shaping their own lives. Ironic, given the way they scrutinise the various characters who make up the extended Harry Potter universe, down to their little idiosyncrasies and quirks.

Guha’s prose bears the mark of these inconsistencies as well. Some of the metaphors the characters use — usually references to life in India — are laboured, showing an awkward obligation to assert their Indian-ness, an issue that plagues much of Indian-English writing. Kannan and Malathi, the Indian protagonists, are wooden and inexpressive, scarcely more than what their circumstances demand of them. Descriptions of Boston, the book’s primary setting, seem a little too specific.

Beyond fanfare

Secondary characters, like Kannan’s brother, Santhanam, and Malathi’s father are disembodied presences floating along the margins. Devoid of substance, they and their puzzling rantings seem to exist for the sole purpose of directing the course of the story in ways the protagonists cannot.

Where Accidental Magic shines is in its exploration of fandom as a culture, treating it not as an object of disdain, as sceptics might, but as a legitimate intellectual culture that serves the same purpose as any cultural pursuit — providing a space for people to reach out, to communicate, to make themselves heard.

Guha consciously reinforces the appeal of fandom — the sheer delight of immersion, the process of reading as a form of refuge, the comfort of friendships over a shared interest, the nostalgia for one’s forgotten idealism, and the search for a niche where one can snuggle in comfortably. At the same time, the protagonists wrestle with the sense of escapism that comes with being so invested in an intangible world of the imagination.

If Accidental Magic falters in fleshing out the characters, it makes up for this in its depiction of fandom, making the novel worth a read.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelance culture journalist.

Accidental Magic; Keshava Guha, HarperCollins, ₹599

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 5:08:30 am |