The Philosopher’s Tome

Accidental Magic, Keshava Guha’s debut novel, ponders Harry Potter fandom but is light on geeky delights.

Originally published in India Today.

Since Harry Potter debuted in 1997, books, films and fan material related to J.K. Rowling’s novels have proliferated faster than cursed objects in a vault at Gringotts. There are academic treatises, pop literary analyses and, of course, countless works of fan fiction. It was only a matter of time before someone wrote a novel about the phenomenon and the fandom itself, and the premise of Keshava Guha’s Accidental Magic – four fans drawn together through Potter – is ripe with possibility and also brilliantly saleable.

There’s the protagonist Kannan who, like Harry, travels far from home (Bengaluru) for school (Boston), but is a passive anti-hero who takes initiative only rarely and abortively. His only friend is Curtis Grimmett, an older white liberal radio host who fetishises England. Rebecca, a privileged young Harvard graduate, feels like a literary successor to various white women who have populated the pages of Indian male writers before Guha. Malathi, a fan from Madras, is possibly the most interesting character but tends to function more as a plot device; her arc becomes secondary to Kannan’s and is, unfortunately, left undeveloped.

Accidental Magic throws back to the ‘three-year summer’, when fans filled the void between books four and five with their own writing and speculation. Guha alludes to real sites and controversies with small details and names changed. But as a love-letter to fandom, his book falls short of capturing the geeky delight of the whole endeavour, favouring a more cerebral approach to its characters and themes.

The amount of analysis feels disproportionate to the throes of early-middle fandom. Kannan posts online “a theory of Harry Potter in which J.K. Rowling was not the last word but merely the first… the wonder of fandom, and of fan fiction in particular was of a universe in perpetual expansion”, laying out “as no one had ever done that he had seen, what it was they might all be doing”. This feels more in keeping with the way critics write about mature fandoms now, through a nostalgic lens on notable anniversaries.

Accidental Magic is an intriguing crossover between a late 20th century immigrant novel and a Harry Potter meta essay. But despite memorable characters, potentially tense plot-lines, and sincere attempts at grappling with ideas about race and nationality, it grinds along in first gear, at times jarring over long, pontificating sentences that hinder narrative fluidity and resolution. “I prefer to respect the mystery of it,” Grimmett says of his relationship with Kannan. But Accidental Magic could have been less imperturbable without needing to spell everything out.

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