Book review: The Book Of Dust, Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman PIC: Daneil Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty Images
Philip Pullman PIC: Daneil Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty Images
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There was a tide of enthusiasm when Philip Pullman announced a new book set in the world of His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One. It was, in many ways, a muted affair. Rather than the cosmological battles of the original trilogy, featuring Lyra Silvertongue, née Belacqua, it was a far more modest tale of how Lyra was taken, as a baby, to her new home. This second part of the new trilogy skips ahead: Lyra is now an undergraduate, her erstwhile saviour, Malcolm, is a don and dark forces are on the move. There is much to enjoy in this new novel, and in some ways I want to be wholehearted, but I cannot. The joy of the first trilogy was transportation, to a different world of daemons and witches and armoured bears and ghosts and harpies and even things such as the sort-of-mechanical mulefa. This, like La Belle Sauvage, feels not so much like an invented world but a reflected one. In La Belle Sauvage it was flooding and eco-catastrophe. This time it is everything.

But for those who loved the originals, there are many treats; not least that the two intervening novellas – Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time In The North – get a glimpse-in. Also, by being a continuation rather than a prequel, Pullman has the chance to make new mythologies. The proof, for instance, has a letter from the author stating that “Lyra and Malcolm, as I say, are not children any more”.

Numerous strands of plot tug the reader around. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are studying in different ways. She has become an ardent advocate of two books – The Hyperchorasmians and The Constant Deceiver, both of which promote rationality in either an arid or florid manner. Her enthusiasm for these works has driven a wedge between her and her daemon, something exacerbated by Pantalaimon (who can stray further from his human than is usual) witnessing a murder. The opening chapters are full of vim and buzz, as the identity of the victim and the reason for his murder return both Lyra and her daemon to detective mode. In many ways these chapters resembled the Sally Lockhart series of novels: plucky gal in pickle situation. But there is an undertow of melancholy, as Lyra and Pantalaimon no longer see eye to eye; indeed, and this is not a spoiler, they have come actively to dislike each other. In some ways it is a convenient narrative device, since as the book progresses we get the pair, separated, involved in different adventures.

Although people might think of Pullman as a “children’s author”, this is written for the children that read His Dark Materials and have since grown up. What does retain the connective tissue, and what is far more significant than in La Belle Sauvage, is a rebooting of the mythological background to the books. In this case it is a new way to use the alethiometer; a manipulative cleric from the Magisterium who is utterly Machiavellian; a cult coming from “the mountains” and putting people to the sword; a place where daemons exist without humans and a place where humans can only go if they sacrifice the presence of their daemon. Oh, and a narrative braid about a place in a desert where roses grow with special, painful and useful properties. A brief mention of rose-water at a college feast (as well as the murder) triggers a continent spanning quest.

All of this is jolly rum fun. My reservation is that Pullman is too explicit in the contemporary concerns. There are passages on refugees on Greek islands, on the wearing of the burqa, on the limits of rationality, on jihadi fighters, on incompetent, venal, lazy governments – it is as if Pullman, ever the schoolteacher, feels it is time the reader has a ruler over the knuckles. For example, one incident in this long book features as character saying “I thought it was just a legend or a ghost story when I first heard about it. To be honest I find all that sort of thing – well, I don’t know – unconvincing. Irrelevant really. There’s enough trouble and difficulty in this world, enough sick people to look after, enough children to teach, enough poverty and oppression to fight without worrying about the supernatural”. Now, this may well be a good way to live a good life, but the sense of being reprimanded in the novel is rather jarring. At the same time, there is a triumphalism about the importance of story, imagination, myth and fable: life is more than “the meaningless and indifferent jostling of particles in her brain”. Science is right, but art saves.

As I approached the final hundred pages of the book, I had goose-flesh. Not because of any narrative twist, and there are many, but because I realised that there was no way the strands would be tied. The fact that the last words are “To be continued…” will dispirit some readers, although they will get a bit of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (from Book 3), which deals with one of the original heroines, Britomart. Stuart Kelly

The Book Of Dust, Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman, Penguin, £20