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Book Reviews

The Ink-Black Heart

Book Review

by Lauren Alise Schultz

I need to state up front that this is a book review of The Ink-Black Heart by J.K. Rowling (aka “Robert Galbraith”) and not a commentary on the book’s author. Any opinions I have of Rowling are not part of this review. Although an author’s opinions, politics, statements, and actions are a part of a reader’s understanding of their work, I believe a book should also be reviewed standing on its own. While the known (or debated) politics of an author cannot be wholly separated from the analysis of their work, it is possible and worthwhile to set aside knowledge of the author to focus directly on the text.

Rowling has an impressive ability to write complex plots, which is showcased brilliantly in both the Harry Potter series and the Cormoran Strike mystery series. The Ink-Black Heart, the sixth in the Strike series, is no exception and may even be one of the author’s most complicated plots yet. Clocking in at a whopping 1,024 pages, this mammoth novel follows the detectives Strike and Ellacott as they try to determine the real-life identities of more than a dozen chat room users in order to uncover the identity of a serial killer. Their main suspect is an internet user going by the chat room handle Anomie, but while Anomie is definitely responsible for certain crimes, he/she may or may not actually be the killer. Meanwhile, Strike and Ellacott also need to determine the identities of several members of a terrorist cell, some of whom possibly overlap with the aforementioned chat room users. With all the various characters whose identities are not revealed until the last quarter of the novel, some readers may need to take notes to keep track of the details that are slowly revealed about each chat room user. The reader also needs to compare those details to the facts revealed throughout the novel about the characters that Strike and Ellacott encounter in real life (i.e. not on the internet) during their investigation.

Because a big part of this mystery is about identifying a lot of characters who are hiding behind internet personas, the reader has to follow a lot of chat room and Twitter conversations throughout the novel. These conversations got a bit tedious for me at times, and if you’re someone (like me) with a distinct dislike for Twitter, consider that you’ll have to slog your way through a lot of conversations that realistically portray crass and disgusting internet chat room garbage if you read this novel.

But as much as I hate dealing with online garbage in my own day-to-day, the dregs of the internet made an excellent setting for The Ink-Black Heart. The novel tackles issues like internet bullying and trolling, use of the dark web for terrorist purposes, internet predators and pedophiles, and so many other damaging aspects of online culture. Kudos to Rowling for incorporating so much garbage that needs to be brought into the light while simultaneously using these issues to weave an intricate, intriguing plot.

Overall, I loved this novel, but I’ve got two complaints about The Ink-Black Heart.

First off, the novel starts off pretty slowly and takes a while to build to a decent clip, then a more urgent pace. Rowling takes more than 100 pages to get things moving, and although that’s a small percentage of a 1,000-page novel, no one who picks up a mystery wants to read 100 pages of slow-moving background. Rowling and her editor should have rejiggered the beginning so the action of the main murder mystery would begin sooner. Rowling could have spread the background material out across subsequent chapters so that readers could enjoy that sense of urgency that propels you though the best mystery novels. Fortunately for me, I’m a dedicated fan of Rowling’s work and I had faith that the novel’s pace would pick up, which kept me going. (I’m also highly invested in the characters by the sixth novel in the series.) But I suspect that The Ink-Black Heart may lose a good number of less-dedicated readers before the main mystery is ever even presented.

My second complaint is not a technical issue with Rowling’s writing, and perhaps could be considered more of a rumination. The Strike novels have always depicted a wide range of characters who have complex mental health issues and physical health challenges, and I deeply appreciate that Rowling has featured characters with these conditions. Detective Cormoran Strike is himself a war veteran whose lower leg got blown off by a bomb in Afghanistan, and he is constantly struggling to overcome his many health and mobility issues in order to continue working in the profession that he loves. His partner, Robin Ellacott, was a rape victim whose reserved personality, panic attacks, other mental health issues, and previous timid, predictable life choices all sprang from the assault she endured in college. As a woman in her late twenties and her early thirties, Ellacott is now building a life that is most decidedly not controlled by anxieties and fears, motivated like Strike by her love of detective work. Rowling depicts both of their physical and mental health struggles with nuance.

Beyond the two series main characters, Rowling has included a lot of other characters who have a wide variety of physical and mental health challenges, even shedding light on several lesser-known physical and mental conditions. Although this has given many people fodder for complaints and diatribes on the internet, I have always felt like she has done a fairly good job of portraying these characters with nuance. I feel that her writing reflects compassion for the characters’ struggles with illness. Her writing also illuminates how serious long-term mental and physical health challenges can embitter a person, or even twist their personalities into something ugly. In contrast, Ellacott in particular (and Strike to a lesser degree) has become a really lovely person despite the mental health issues she has had to overcome.

Because of the way that these two characters are written, I’ve always felt like they have provided a nice counter-balance to any of other characters in the series who are disabled or mentally ill and are depicted as having fairly negative personality traits as well. I am not saying there are no problematic aspects to some of Rowling’s characters. But to me, this distribution of some characters with physical or mental illnesses as “good guys” (with some pretty nuanced negative characteristics) and other characters with illnesses and disabilities as “bad guys” (with some positive traits, talents, etc.) seems like a realistic depiction of how the world really is. After all, those of us with chronic/long-term mental and/or physical health conditions still get to choose how we treat other people and how embittered we become.

When it comes to The Ink-Black Heart, it feels a bit to me like the balance is tipped in an unfavorable direction. Rowling has included a large number of characters who have physical handicaps/disabilities, debilitating chronic illnesses, and/or mental health issues most of them are portrayed in a very negative light. They are represented as nasty and bitter, abrasive and abusive, pathetic and needy, and even criminal in various ways. Meanwhile, although Strike’s physical handicap, mobility, and resulting health issues are a main focus of the book, Ellacott’s history as a rape victim is mostly mentioned in passing and briefly identified as the cause of her negative reactions to a few men’s romantic advances in the novel.

As someone who struggles with chronic illness and a reduced capacity to be as “productive” as others in American society, I was frustrated by Rowling’s less-than-nuanced portrait of the character Kea Niven, who struggles with several chronic illnesses. For example, the character’s comments (tweets) about being judged for her lack of productivity in a capitalist society go unexplained. The average reader who has little to no experience with chronic illness or disability probably won’t understand what she is talking about. But Kea’s reflect how many people with chronic illness feel less valuable because we can’t work full time (or at all) or help provide for our families monetarily due to health constraints. We struggle with feeling that we’re a burden on our families and a drag on our friends. We grow depressed because we feel that we’re not living up to our creative and intellectual capabilities, and so we are a waste. But without an explanation of Kea’s tweets, her comments just come across as wacky.

Rowling’s portrayal of Kea as someone who might very well be faking her illnesses and disabilities, or at least playing them up for a variety of her own purposes, contributes to the ongoing perception that people with certain “invisible” chronic illnesses are just imagining their illness and pain. There are thousands and thousands of us living with debilitating pain who have been told by countless doctors alike that our pain is “just in your mind” because it can’t be attributed to a visible injury or an identified illness. We are already demoralized by our pain, and we feel even more diminished when people dismiss our struggles. The way that Rowling portrays Kea as someone who is abusive to her mother, pathetically needy, and deluded about her romantic relationship with her ex helps to create an even more negative overall perception of people with chronic illness. While some individuals with chronic illnesses grow embittered and take on their anger on the people around them, there are plenty people with chronic illness who build and maintain good family relationships, romantic partnerships, and friendships, as well as pursue creative and intellectual hobbies during the times when they are feeling better. In short, without any characters with chronic illness who truly counter-balance her in the novel, the character of Kea does quite a disservice to perception of people with chronic illness and/or disabilities.

Even though I’m unhappy about the character of Kea (or more accurately, unhappy about the lack of any chronically-ill characters who were more positively portrayed), I still appreciate Rowling’s attempts to shed more light on a lot of lesser-known medical and mental health conditions. I still think the majority of her characters who have mental and/or physical health challenges are nuanced and fairly helpful to the overall portrayal of medical issues in the media. I also don’t think the character of Kea is a strong enough reason to go sour on the The Ink-Black Heart. Instead, I see Kea and the novel overall as a good way to start a conversation about how all writers and media can do better about portraying people with “invisible” chronic illnesses. As artists and as a society, we can always be moving past the ways we currently do things and on to something even better.

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J.K. Rowling aka Robert Galbraith
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