When I was starting Prisoner of Azkaban, a friend told me that his experience reading the last several chapters of the book was like being underwater. At the time he said that, he was too drunk and I too sober for him to effectively communicate or me to really understand what he meant by that. But after finishing the third Harry Potter book, I think I get it now.
We left off with the Quidditch final, an exhilarating high point for the fun side of the novel. From there, things take a wonderfully dark turn. A pet gets beheaded by a corrupt system. A giant wild dog breaks Ron’s leg and drags him into a secret passage beneath a killer tree. Harry come face to face with his parents’ betrayer. Decades-old grudges play out among professors, spies, and convicts.
Even if you didn’t know the big reveals before they occurred, you could have guessed Sirius’ innocence by the way Lupin pled for just the chance to explain; yet even though you could guess at an impending revelation of innocence, the tension remained, shifting to whether it would ever come to light, given Harry’s, then Snape’s, reluctance to listen. It was the highest drama we’ve seen yet in the series, with revelations and twists flying at a pulse-pounding pace.
It was remarkable how quickly Harry went from hating Sirius with every fiber of his being, even wanting to murder him, to finding his greatest bliss at the mere thought of living with Sirius. And it was remarkable how believable that quick transition felt. When I read the confrontation between Sirius and Peter — the sheer outrage Sirius felt at the idea he’d have served Voldemort, his anger and deep pain at what was done to James and Lily, and his utter devotion to protecting Harry — I fell for Sirius myself, in just a matter of pages. He’s still half-mad but all awesome. I said in my first Azkaban post that the way Harry left the Dursleys early in the book should have been the way he left them forever; it was hard to feel any differently after coming to love Sirius as a character. Having said that, I don’t want to judge too quickly about what should have happened; I haven’t read the remaining books yet, and I can’t say from just the movies that it won’t be a more interesting literary route to have Harry tragically separated from his still-fugitive godfather. But even if Rowling’s route does end up being for the best, I do wish, at the very least, that there were an alternate reality where we could have seen Sirius cleared and Harry go live with him. Or even Harry secretly live with Sirius while he remains a fugitive. I just think that deeper exploration of that budding relationship would have been fascinating to see.
Instead, things fall apart, the way things tend to do. Werewolves and dementors interrupt the chance at a happy ending in a series of intensely exciting scenes. In the end, we settle for the happy-enough ending, even if not the one I, or Harry, really wanted. In between, time travel happens. I could say five words about that, or 500. Perhaps I’ll do another post someday about time travel paradoxes and to what extent they work as a plot device. For now, I’ll try to stay on a smaller word count and just say that I’m still torn and not entirely sure that adding the time travel element was the right way to go, but it at least kinda worked, and maybe even worked a lot. I don’t know.
But in any event, when I finished the book, I suddenly understood my drunk friend. Those final 100 or so pages were so intense, so brimming with emotional tension and action-packed drama that when I finally put it down, I realized I’d barely been breathing for the past couple hours. I’d been drowning in the excitement and disappointment, the breakthroughs and the letdowns, the roller coaster of wonder and drama, underwater in the world of Harry Potter.