Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

The middle chapter of The Book of Dust is thrilling, rich and downright weird. Since reading volume one - La Belle Sauvage - I've gone back to Northern Lights and reread most of The Subtle Knife (which my son has now pinched), as well as been avidly glued to the TV version. Given that immersion in this fantastical universe, I can report that The Secret Commonwealth is Pullman at his best, the story so compelling that I raced through the hefty tome of 687 pages in just a matter of days.

It's set 20 years after the events of La Belle Sauvage and eight after those of the His Dark Materials trilogy, with Lyra Silvertongue nee Belaqua now a grown-up. Shockingly, she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are not getting on - when their bond gave the original trilogy such emotional power. We keenly feel their separation, while for those in this world it is utterly scandalous, physically repulsive, that they can be apart. The sense is that they have been changed, psychologically and physically, by the trauma they have been through in previous books. Pan, shockingly, sneaks off without Lyra - something most daemons would find impossible - to explore nocturnal Oxford, where he witnesses a murder...

Lyra and Pan go to report this to the police, but Pan recognises a policeman as one of the murderers. Other figures of authority are also a problem: the new Master of Jordan Collage evicts Lyra from the rooms she's lived in since childhood, and threatens to expel her from the college entirely; there are new people at and gathering power within the Magisterium - one of whom has personal reasons for wishing revenge on Lyra. And far away in the east, something is going on to damage the trade in certain derivatives of roses (yes, really) that suggests the emergence of another, ruthless power...

With the stakes so highly set against her, and an adventure that begins in the locality of Oxford but then jaunts across the world, it feels like Lyra is in a spy novel, and a good one - le Carre or James Bond, but with magic. The characters and situations are vivid and arresting, with plenty of twists and shocks along the way. The atmosphere is tense and bleak through ought. Pullman also develops the mechanics of his world: we see all kinds of exceptions to the normative, binary human/daemon relationship - the daemon who falls for another human, the people who buy and sell daemons, the man who insists that daemons aren't really there. In each case, it's more than just a fun idea; Pullman explores the resulting emotional devastation. How brilliant to make the intricacies of such fantastical relationships so moving.

Whereas I felt La Belle Sauvage lost its way in its second half, The Secret Commonwealth sustains the pace and excitement, while at the same time covering lots of philosophical ground as per previous books. It's as deep but less talky, I think, and also palpably angry, with stuff to say about fake news, restrictions on academic freedom, the parochial nature of reporting and politics. There's a lot, too, on the cruelty of families and the kindness of strangers. I wonder how consciously Pullman is addressing readers of Lyra's age or thereabouts, the now young adults who first read his books as children: how much is this a rant, and how much a rallying cry?

There's one thing I really wasn't keen on: the fact that Malcolm Polstead, protagonist of La Belle Sauvage, is in love with Lyra - who he knew as a baby. Yes, she's now 20 and could be a consenting adult, but I didn't feel comfortable about the balance of power between this Oxford tutor and this vulnerable student who has so much on her plate already. I really hope they don't get together in book three.

But I also can't imagine that Pullman would do anything so simple as that... I wish he'd hurry up and write it.

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