The Ink Black Heart

Welcome to our literature section. We begin with this superb review by Emily Maurits of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling) The Ink Black Heart

The Ink Black Heart review

Where J. K. Rowling goes, outrage follows. This is the axiom by which the 21st century has functioned ever since J. K. Rowling’s entry into the ‘trans debate’ and it would be surprising indeed if her latest book, the sixth in her Cormoran Strike detective fiction series, was evaluated solely on its literary merit.

As the overwhelming number of one-star reviews on Goodreads (almost all published before the books release date) attest, no one need panic. The requisite claims of transphobia and victim-playing, the labels of TERF, ‘awful person’ and other less family-friendly synonyms are out there in all their monotonous glory, just in case anyone has missed the J. K. Rowling Media hunt over the past few years.

Considering the hullabaloo over a male killer wearing a female coat in her previous book, Troubled Blood, one wonders whether The Ink Black Heart would have provoked the reaction it has, even if the words ‘trans’ and ‘transphobic’ appeared more than once in its 1024 pages. We’ll never find out, since they don’t.

The Ink Black Heart is a story of its time. An internet murder mystery, dual protagonists Cormoran and Robyn investigate the stabbing of a You-tube cartoon creator amid the toxic clamour of fans, who, taking the side of her ex-boyfriend co-creator, slap her all the usual slurs: transphobic, anti-Semitic, capitalist, racist, ableist, the list goes on. That these are the terms used to vilify hints at the emphasis contemporary society places on individual identity, one that J. K. Rowling has discovered to her detriment. It does not matter so much what you do or even what you say – what is important are your identity labels – or, at least, what others perceive them to be.

Anonymity is a key theme of The Ink Black Heart. The detectives plunge deep into the world of on-line gaming, tumblr, sub-reddits, twitter, ebay  and cryptocurrency, although Rowling is careful to keep this online world comprehensible for readers new to these spheres. Yes, there are copious pages of online exchanges and tweets,  but the inherent terseness of their format invites rather than excludes the reader, offering us not only the chance to experience the insular claustrophobia of online exchanges, but also the opportunity to decipher the messages in ‘real-time’ alongside the protagonists. The simultaneous conversations may not be the easiest to follow, but this is a book which rewards a switched-on reader.

The above format has evoked criticism, as has the book’s lengthy page count, but it’s difficult to believe a novel could do justice to the complexity of online media without these. For Rowling’s strength is, as it has always been in this series, characterisation. She populates The Ink Black Heart with awful, fascinating, broken characters, and by allowing their words to stand as tweets and messages unfiltered by the narrator, even the most twisted become, if not sympathetic, at least believable. For the well-meaning ‘fan’, ‘gamer’ or ‘nerd’ it’s almost a form of redemption for the stereotypes conjured by these labels – while at the same time it’s an unapologetic uncovering of the crude, violent childishness of the ‘incel’, ‘fascist’ or ‘misogynist’. If the language included is shocking or surprising, well, welcome to the internet.

It’s certainly not a perfect book. I am still not sure whether the verbatim repetition of an exchange between two characters was a clue or an editorial glitch. Secondly, that extremists are tied to sensational crimes is one of those obvious correlations in the real world which nevertheless feel forced in a fictional one. Additionally, the climax was rather rushed, and I remain unconvinced that the killer’s particular character traits really would have allowed them to commit the crime and accompanying subterfuge with that much finesse. There are enough characters with chronic illnesses, addictions, mental health struggles and disabilities that Rowling cannot be accused of tokenism, but it is unfortunate that the characters with physical disabilities fare much better than the ME sufferers, who are both egotistical manipulators. She does move beyond depicting the sole Dutch family as joint-smoking, free-loving bohemians, but only just (they’re rich, racist bohemians!).

All this considered, The Ink Black Heart is a book generous in its depiction of humanity. One doesn’t expect a single work to depict an utterly balanced snap shot of life, but Rowling avoids didactic self-righteousness by refusing to punish her supporting characters for their moral choices. They may be unpleasant, but they are free to be so, and most of them go their merry way at the end of the novel. This decision is balanced by her treatment of the protagonists, particularly Cormoran Strike. A middle-aged amputee who smokes, drinks, forgoes a healthy diet, neglects physiotherapy, and lies to almost every woman of his acquaintance in order to avoid conflict, this is the book where the proverbial crows come home to roost. Whether he’ll stick to his new-found resolutions, only book seven will tell, but Rowling is in fine form here as she details the day-to-day lives (and loves) of her two investigators with affection and humour. That an author who has been ‘cancelled’ by mainstream media can write so evenly about online persecution is a witness which Christians would do well to heed and follow. That the antidote to relentless hatred might just be a renewed embrace of humanity is not so far from Jesus’ command to love your enemies. And so, if readers are left with any message from J. K. Rowling’s latest book, it’s this: we might be broken, and the world has definitely gone mad, but it’s not too late to open our eyes and stop retreating.

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