I am paint and memory, Harry, paint and memory.
Such is the declaration of the portrait of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. One hallmark of the Harry Potter series is Dumbledore’s ability to see things as they really are. Dumbledore may not always make sense, but that’s because he’s staring at reality in a truer way than everyone else. And sadly, he gets it right again. Paint and memory, that’s all Cursed Child is. Just as the paint captures only the shell of the man, so Cursed Child uses familiar names and faces but reduces them to mere caricatures of their selves.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child sat on my shelf for almost six months, waiting for me to clear enough time to read the book. It’s probably instructive that I read the first quarter quickly, then managed to read a dozen other books before returning to it. If anything, Harry Potter and its adult friend, A Casual Vacancy, demanded to be paid attention to. Their worlds beckoned the reader to come and be engrossed. The Cursed Child is not a call to a wondrous world, but a call to a sad revivification of something that should have stayed finished.
One of the reasons I read J.K. Rowling’s writing is her masterful ability to craft characters that you can understand. They are complex as real humans are, yet distinct from one another to the point that their motives, actions, and inactions are truly their own. This return to the wizarding world was dizzying in its confusion. Somehow heroic Harry has been reduced to a whining, petulant brat, yelling at a painting of Dumbledore for not loving him in ways that Harry appreciates. Loyal Ron is a doofus. Brilliant Hermione casts a small shadow as an overwhelmed, reactionary Minster of Magic. If there’s any lesson the book appears to teach it’s that every forty-something by necessity must go through some kind of regressive, infantile pout-fest.
Despite Dumbledore’s portrait being mere paint and memory, Harry experiences wisdom and help through that remembrance. Likewise, Cursed Child does flash the occasional wit, insight, and craft that made the original books so charming in the first place. Most of these ironically occur while Harry stands before Dumbledore’s portrait:
HARRY: I need your help. I need your advice. Bane says Albus is in danger. How do I protect my son, Dumbledore?
DUMBLEDORE: You ask me, of all people, how to protect a boy in terrible danger? We cannot protect the young from harm. Pain must and will come.
HARRY: So I’m supposed to stand and watch?
DUMBLEDORE: No, you’re supposed to teach him how to meet life.
If only the whole book could have all been written like that.