Around 1999, when the Harry Potter fandom came to be unofficially labelled Pottermania and its members Potterheads, it was not uncommon to imagine the world neatly divided into two kinds of people — those who were devoted to the Potter world and those who weren’t. Accidental Magic by Keshava Guha locates itself in this time of Potter frenzy with a charming premise, as it explores the meaning of identity and community through the lens of fandom. How do the lives of four very different people with a shared love for J.K. Rowling’s books intersect and what does it mean for and to them?
With a silver lightening bolt as the centrepiece of its glossy white cover, Accidental Magic begins with great promise.
Set in Boston, with glimpses of Madras and Bangalore, Guha's debut novel has a lightness that is disarming, bringing us a motley cast of four Potterheads — Kannan, Curtis, Rebecca, Malathi. Kannan, the central character, is a programmer living in Boston, “a knock-off version” of his conservative brother Santhanam, an engineer in Austin and a somewhat sour presence in Kannan's life who presses him to stay focused on achieving good grades and fruitful employment.
Kannan doesn’t always listen: as he begins to find joy and confidence in charting an identity distinct from his brother, he becomes an expert at shirking work at the website he is employed at so he can spend his mornings debating furiously on online Potter fan clubs and forums, dedicating his evenings and most nights to reading fanfiction.
He bumps into Curtis Grimmett — the host of a weekly radio show and founder of Boston Gobstones, a Potter fan club — while waiting in line to pick up midnight copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is an odd but satisfying friendship with moments where “Kannan felt like Harry to Grimmett’s Dumbledore”. When the Gobstones has their first offline meet, in walks Rebecca, a passionate and perceptive Harvard graduate in her early 20s looking to put a friendly face to the online Potter chatter, finding herself drawn to Curtis and Kannan.
To this Boston-based trio, the arrival of Malathi, a voracious reader and a literature student back in India, shifts the equilibrium is a strange and somewhat inexplicable way. Arranged to be married to Kannan after a brief meeting in Bengaluru, the near strangers are comforted, to some degree, by their shared craze for Rowling’s books.
Accidental Magic quickly draws you into its very specific universe, spread over a couple of years. There is a little something for every Potterhead here: this is a novel where Potterheads get together and talk in deep detail about fanfiction and the various controversies surrounding it and introspect carefully on magical objects in the books, or whose friendship is more authentic, Ron and Hermione or Hermoine and Harry?
Working with a sparse plot and plenty of fresh ideas and themes, Accidental Magic hops between multiple perspectives of the four characters. But just as you begin to settle in, the spell breaks. The characters seem to go off in unconvincing and underwritten tangents. The book’s strong sense of place, time and specificity which sets it apart begins to feel insular, the protagonists appear trapped and disconnected. Though Guha writes lucidly, with humour and affection, the narrative stops short of becoming an immersive experience akin to the Potter rage it hat tips. I wished for a lot more magic.