Oh Lyra Belacqua, Lyra Silvertongue.
I devoured the original trilogy of your journeys to the North. Bolvangar, Svalbad, Iorek Byrnison, The World of the Dead. I adored the Miltonic and Blakean echoes. Fell in love with the mercurial, quick witted, innocent girl. Loved the world created by Pullman, the familiarity of it, the uncanniness, the unheimlich, the dæmons.
Whilst I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, and appreciated its tighter focus: after our quest to the Arctic and then across worlds in His Dark Materials, to be limited to a single world and to the single city of Oxford and the Trout Inn – which at Godstow is only an hour’s walk away from Jordan College, making the assumption that Jordan was based on Pullman’s own alma mater, Exeter College, Oxford. “The one in Turl Street with the very tall spire.” And I liked the new characters introduced – Malcolm Polstead, Alice, Hannah Relf – and the presence of Oakley Street, the quirky, benevolent secret intelligence service in whose employ Relf was. Which makes is a surprise that, looking back, I didn’t review it – maybe that was because I wasn’t sure quite how it tied in to the Lyra mythology… Maybe life just got in the way.
There was a jump between La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth: we catch up with Lyra as a twenty year old student at Oxford, still living in Jordan but studying at St. Sophia’s College.
Which is a fascinating concept: how do those iconic heroes deal with the aftermath of their exploits and adventures. The return to normality. How would a young girl who has befriended and fought alongside Iorek Byrnison, king of the panserbjørn, who has communed with witches, battled Metatron and the Authority, and walked into and out of the world of the dead – how would such a girl return to routine and normality and mundanity? How would the sparkling Lyra Silvertongue grow up?
Being brutally honest, a little too normally seemed to be the answer.
The only real issue is in her relationship with Pantalaimon. For those who don’t know the series, the world Pullman has created is a parallel universe to our own where everyone has a dæmon – some part of their soul incarnate and separate from them in the form of an animal, yet connected to them so powerfully that they cannot separate more than a few metres without causing intense pain. Pantalaimon is Lyra’s dæmon although, since her journey to the world of the dead, one from whom she can separate.
No one who saw him would think for a moment that he was a pine marten; he looked like a pine marten in every respect, but he was a dæmon. It was very hard to say where the difference lay, but any human being in Lyra’s world would have known it at once, as surely as they knew the smell of coffee or the color red.
Throughout His Dark Materials, Pan was her constant companion and support; in The Secret Commonwealth, we are told that they don’t like each other very much
She looked lost. She picked up a cushion and held it close with both arms around it, and Malcolm thought: Why isn’t she holding her dæmon like that? And that brought into focus something he’d noticed without seeing it clearly: Lyra and Pantalaimon didn’t like each other. He felt a sudden lurch, as of surprise, and pitied them both.
Was this a depiction of some form of mental health issue, a post-traumatic stress response? A reaction to their experiences as children? Alienation from a part of yourself? It could have been, but it never quite felt like that, nor did they really feel estranged terribly. Perhaps this is because it is never made entirely clear which part of the soul or the identity forms the dæmon, although this book hints that it is perhaps their intuition and imagination whereas the critical and analytical features were Lyra’s. Indeed, Pan heads off on a quest to recover Lyra’s imagination. But other dæmon-less characters, or characters able to separate, don’t appear to suffer that same division.
The story kicks off with Pan witnessing a murder by the river in Oxford. From there, Pan and Lyra stumble onto a secreted bag, mysterious notebooks and diaries, a sinister conspiracy focused on – of all things – rose oil apparently. Oil from roses grown in the Karamakan desert in the Levant. Which are connected somehow with Dust and dæmons.
And the Magisterium, Pullman’s antagonistic tentacular scarcely-disguised Catholic Church is also involved in the rose oil business and in the murder in Oxford. Through the Magisterium, we find two antagonistic characters: Marcel Delamare, head of La Maison Juste, manipulating the Magisterium from behind the scenes to grant him sole power and control over it whilst simultaneously seeking out Lyra; and Olivier Bonneville, his alethiometer reader and son of Gerard Bonneville, the man from whom Malcolm had protected Lyra in La Belle Sauvage and from whom he had acquired the alethiometer that Lyra owned. Neither of these currently possess the power and presence of Mrs Coulter as villains but perhaps Delamare has potential. None have been in a position to confront Lyra directly, either, the way that Mrs Coulter did. Yet.
The crisis, however, occurs when Pan decides to flee from Lyra, seeking her imagination and Lyra flees first to the Gyptian water people for refuge. It is from them that she learns of the eponymous secret commonwealth:
The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns….
When I was young, there wasn’t a single bush, not a single flower nor a stone, that didn’t have its own proper spirit. You had to have a mind to your manners around them, to ask for pardon, or for permission, or give thanks….Just to acknowledge that they were there, them spirits, and they had their proper rights to recognition and courtesy…. They en’t bad nor wicked, not really, nor partic’ly good neither. They’re just there, and they deserve good manners.
Bells started chiming at that: memories of Lyra being suckled by the fairy Diania in La Belle Sauvage; echoes of Spenser’s Faery Queen; shades of Puck and Titania and Oberon. But as a concept, the eponymous commonwealth was very ephemeral and background. A conceit being set up for later, perhaps.
From the Gyptians, pursued again by the Magisterium and Delamare, without Pan, Lyra formulates the objective of heading into Asia and the Levant, searching for something known as The Blue Hotel or al-Khan al-Azraq or Madinat al-Qamar or Selenopolis or the City of the Moon – ruins of a city in which people-less dæmons are said to go and about which Lyra learned from the dead man’s journals. Her conviction is that Pan would also go there and they could be reunited.
Which seems like a long-shot, to be fair. Especially when we, as readers, have Pan as a point-of-view narrator and know that he is not in fact heading there at all.
And from there the plot becomes very episodic as Lyra bounces from one dæmon-less ally to another, from one Oakley Street operative to another as she travels to Prague, Constantinople and the Levant. Meanwhile, Pan journeys to find her imagination and confront a German philosopher called Gottfried Brande who wrote the novel The Hyperchorasmians which Pan blames for the loss of Lyra’s imagination. And Malcolm also travels eastwards, on Oakley Street business and in search of Lyra. Everyone is searching for someone in this novel!
Turning to Malcolm. I liked him. I liked him in La Belle Sauvage. He had a practical, down-to-earth competence here as he trekked across Europe and Turkey, which made his occasional forays into James Bond territory perfectly credible. What was not credible was his apparent love for Lyra. The Lyra he has known since she was literally a babe in arms. The Lyra who he had taught four years earlier when she was sixteen and he
was conscious of all kinds of contrasts—his maturity and her youth, his bulk and her slenderness, his stolidity and her quickness….He could watch her for hours. Her eyes, large and long-lashed and a gloriously vivid blue, more expressive than anyone’s he’d known; she was so young, but already he could see where the laughter lines, the lines of sympathy, the lines of concentration would gather in the years to come and make her face even richer and more full of life. Already, on each side of her mouth, there was a tiny crease made by the smile that seemed to hover just under the surface, ready to flower into being. Her hair, dark straw-colored, shortish and untidyish but always soft and shining: once or twice when he was teaching her, bending to look over her shoulder at a piece of written work, he’d caught a faint scent from that hair, not of shampoo but of young warm girl, and drawn away at once. At that time, when they were teacher and pupil, anything like that was so wrong, his mind shut it out before it had even fully formed.
This is distinctly creepy – I mean read it again “a faint scent from that hair, not of shampoo but of young warm girl” – and out-of-character. And worse than that, at present at least, utterly irrelevant to the narrative.
As was the scene with the soldiers on the train towards the end of the novel. An attempted rape. It is not graphically described nor glorified or romanticised in any way. But what did it add to the narrative? What was the point? Would Lyra’s journey have been any less horrific or her any less vulnerable without it?
So, a couple of serious missteps in the characterisation and plotting, perhaps, but still a pleasure to read and a wonderful world. And yes, of course, I will wait patiently for and read the next book in the series. And I am interested in what becomes of Nur Huda el-Wahabi, a new and very minor character who, touchingly, was named by Pullman after one of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire following an auction to raise money for the victims.
Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (an additional star for the world building)
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Penguin and David Fickling Books
Date: 3rd October 2019