The second volume in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust series returned to his beloved central character, but Lyra Silvertongue is now 20 years old. As the characters have aged, so have the readers, and this novel was positioned for new adult readers too.
Following Lyra into young adulthood allows the series as a whole to grow with the individuals who read it. This means that The Secret Commonwealth is a book for children and young adults in the best of ways; in the troubled times in which we continue to find ourselves, it champions the importance of knowing oneself, and of using that knowledge to care for the ones we love. In order to live in the world, we need magic, we need adventures, and we need love. The Second Volume in The Book of Dust fulfils all of these needs, and more. For those too young to read it now, it stands as a future inheritance for those yet to discover the essential magic of His Dark Materials.
The Silk Roads asked us to re-examine our perspectives on history. The Secret Commonwealth does the same with our conception of what a novel ostensibly for children can do. It’s darker and more dangerous than much YA fiction, but there was nothing here that my 11-year-old couldn’t handle – indeed he raced through it quicker than I did; loved it, if possible, even more. The secret commonwealth, Lyra learns, is the world of the imagination, of folklore and stories. Lyra and her generation, perhaps all of us, have lost touch with this bright yet clandestine world; we have become, as Pan puts it, “immune to the intoxication of night-beauty”. Pullman’s best novel so far is both diagnosis and cure, a work of extraordinary depth and humanity. That Pullman is our best children’s author is clear; The Secret Commonwealth establishes him as one of our greatest writers, full stop.
The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume of The Book of Dust, is a darker and much bigger beast. With scenes of chilling brutality — including the brilliantly orchestrated assassination of a bewildered, elderly senior cleric and his attendants and, in another chapter, the attempted gang rape of a major figure — it is not a book for younger readers and the publishers are keen to point this out...For Lyra, and Pullman, the journey, with its frequent and remarkable segues, really is the destination. Engrossing storytelling aside, The Secret Commonwealth is a vivid portrait of the often painful transition to adulthood and autonomy, laced with a moral purpose that is not without ambiguity or doubt.
Pullman’s is a complex, multicultural world, the exotics not the moral ciphers that are so striking in children’s fiction of the past. It is a corrective to the enchantment of nostalgia that may conceal a darker heart, just as Lyra growing up is a corrective to C S Lewis’s Susan, the fast one of the Pevensie children, whose fondness for lipstick and a life of her own as she entered adulthood hinted at a terrible fate.
Lewis, of course, was signed up to institutional religion, as I am, which so often begins with a vision of angels and ends with an Inquisition – a trajectory Pullman and his hero Blake, who provides the epigram, deplore. How to resist? Lyra’s journey is not only to the ends of the earth but also to the hope of a restoration of the imagination, and the richness of the world, which flashes like the angels Blake saw in the treetops of Peckham, or the fragrance of attar of roses, Rhinegold to this Ring, so vivid in the story that I had an olfactory hallucination when I put it down.
The publishers state that The Secret Commonwealth “can be read as a standalone”, but the 686-page novel will clearly provide more riches to those familiar with the past of the bold Lyra... The tension is kept tight. Lyra is in danger and fearful of a world “becoming more unstable by the day”. As you would expect from part two of a trilogy, the book ends with everything still in the balance.
The book is violently enjoyable and enjoyably violent, but is also suffused with wonder, beauty, delicacy, perceptiveness, kindness, decency and romance. The writing is as exquisite as it is compelling. This is, in short, exactly the kind of novel that you give up hoping for when leaving behind the world of children’s literature for that of the adult.
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.
And so in this book, Pullman’s sights are set on a new and contradictory enemy: cold materialists... It’s a cross, then, between AJ Ayer and Richard Dawkins with a bit of Nietzsche thrown in. But I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. You can’t gun for Christianity and for logical positivists; you can’t have faeries and boggarts and be an atheist. Pullman’s grandfather was a clergyman; he’s still essentially CofE.
He is here in a bog of his own making, even if it’s a bog with lots of marsh sprites. But it’s still a cracking story.
The novel gallops forward, full of danger, delight and surprise. Nearly miraculous, it seems, is Pullman’s ability to sketch character, place and motive in just a few lines; he has a rare ability to make us care about his creations, however far-fetched they may seem. I will not tell you of the plight of the Furnace-Man; I will tell you that you will weep when you discover it.
What you make of this book depends on how much you love Pullman’s world. If, like me, you are content simply to bathe in it, thrilling at every new character or situation, then you will be delighted. Lyra, a young adult now, is having problems with Pan: they don’t like each other, and it’s partly because Lyra’s been reading a thinker who argues that nothing has any importance. ‘I just can’t stand watching you turn into this rancorous reductive monster of cold logic,’ says Pan. And because of this separation, there seems to be a yawning gap at the centre of the novel.
Where its predecessor, La Belle Sauvage, was somewhat muted, lurching through an endless, Biblical flood, The Secret Commonwealth is ablaze with light and life. The writing is exquisite; every sentence sings. There’s a mermaid, an army of will-o'-the-wisps and a man who weeps tears of flame. The quieter moments are no less memorable. A busy street on a warm summer’s night reminds Lyra, and the reader, it’s the sum of our smallest interactions that make life beautiful... Where once Lyra’s world was pin sharp, now she is lost in shades of grey. She has allowed herself to be argued away from the truth of her senses, away from optimism and from imagination. As Pantalaimon says, "You’re in a world of colour and you want to see it in black and white." To read Pullman is to experience the world refreshed, aglow, in Technicolor.
The Secret Commonwealth is complicated, with ambitious vocabulary and convoluted concepts that can be hard to grasp. There are strange episodes and encounters, some of which may not entirely justify their presence. The book’s emotional core, however, carries us through, as we follow Lyra and Pan, and Malcolm, and encounter two terrifying villains, one dangerously powerful, the other just dangerous.
Pullman has successfully turned [Lyra] into an adult by making her remember herself as a child, which also means remembering the earlier books that we all loved. But there is a downside. Previously, Lyra’s experiences and Pullman’s ideas were separate. As a child, she did not know what her story meant. Now she can ruminate in tune with the author’s purposes... Imagination, the mysterious power celebrated by the Romantic poets, is the holy spirit of this book. It opens with a contrarian epigraph from Blake: “Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of the truth.” This declaration sounds permissive (you can believe whatever you like) but is in fact stern (you should listen harder to the logic of your instinctual beliefs). It is the law of fiction that Pullman obeys. He has created a fantasy world, made yet more satisfying in this new volume and pursued with his own special rigour and stylistic elegance. This is a book for getting older with.
The book, like its predecessor, is not as tightly woven nor as richly imagined as any in His Dark Materials. The stakes are not as high: Lyra is no longer battling for the liberty of humankind. And at times the book feels overly episodic, with too weak a drumbeat driving the plot — it can be easy to forget who is doing what and why. And part of me resented having to engage with an adult Lyra when she could have been preserved in my imagination as the gutsy 11-year-old whose future I could happily hypothesise, but never know... Yet Pullman’s story is still thought-provoking. He is an unabashedly moral writer who uses his characters as mules for big ideas, from quantum physics to the nature of devotion. This book elegantly weaves in live issues, from Europe’s refugee crisis to facts in the post-truth era. And Pullman’s prose is as rewarding as ever — spare, but never cold; flexible enough to carry all the different genres he pours into his paragraphs: folklore, theology, romance and so on. At 700 pages or so the book asks a lot of its readers. But the chapters skittered enjoyably by for me and by the end I was grateful for the ride.
Pullman’s story is still thought-provoking. He is an unabashedly moral writer who uses his characters as mules for big ideas, from quantum physics to the nature of devotion. This book elegantly weaves in live issues, from Europe’s refugee crisis to facts in the post-truth era. And Pullman’s prose is as rewarding as ever — spare, but never cold; flexible enough to carry all the different genres he pours into his paragraphs: folklore, theology, romance and so on. At 700 pages or so the book asks a lot of its readers. But the chapters skittered enjoyably by for me and by the end I was grateful for the ride.