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13 December 2019

Review - The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Cover design by Tom Sanderson
The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, 2)
Philip Pullman
David Fickling Books and Penguin Books, 3 October 2019
Audio, 686pp (also available HB, e)

OK: The Secret Commonwealth then!

I listened to this book via an audio subscription service.

It may be an exercise in vanity or futility to review a book whose launch was such a high profile event. The Secret Commonwealth may have been the most anticipated book this year (unless that was The Testaments). But we are where we are. This is a blog and I am a blogger. I don't think anyone is waiting for my say-so to buy The Secret Commonwealth (I certainly hope not) but I do have a few thoughts so I will share them.

And I have even done footnotes!

Warning - this may be a slightly more spoilery review that I would normally do. That's partly because (see above) I don't believe anyone who hasn't read the book will hear about it first from me, partly because when I cross post this to Amazon my review will be the (*checks*) 191st or something like that.

But most of all because I think the book demands it. I see for example that the most "useful" (how I hate that feature!) Amazon reviews wrestle with it, but fail to "get" it. Too long, one says. Too dark. Not for younger people. (This latter is something Pullman has been quite upfront about - READ THE ******* AUTHOR'S NOTE!) As to the length - I'm with Tolkein who lamented that the greatest failing of The Lord of the Rings was that his book was too short. I love a big book. If it's good, I want more.

As to the content - I think I do "get" it. And I won't say it is perfect (see below). But this book is trying to do something brave and difficult, and I think any decent review needs to engage with that and discuss it.

Yes, this IS a dark book. It is very dark in places - for example, there is (CW) an attempted rape, but even without that, the story would not be a happy one. Most obviously, The Secret Commonwealth undermines, contradicts, the hard-won sense of happiness we got at the end of His Dark Materials in a way that La Belle Sauvage didn't, it being set before His Dark Materials and also, as a more self-contained story than Commonwealth, ending on its own note of triumph, almost a prequel to His Dark Materials.

Yes, I know that Lyra and Will were to be separated for ever, sitting each on their own version of that bench in the Botanics. I know they would have to deal with the consequences of having been separated from their dæmons. But when we checked in with Lyra in Lyra's Oxford, set between The Amber Spyglass and Commonwealth, Lyra and Pan were on good terms[1].

Here, they hate each other. HATE.

The first half of the book is punctuated by furious quarrels between Lyra and Pan, the atmosphere this creates overshadowing even grim events in the outside world and what are clearly moves against Lyra herself by the Magisterium. (There's an irony here. In Amber Spyglass, we saw the death of the Authority, the gnostic-tinged demiurge which is behind religion in Pullman's world[2], and Lyra's and Will's victory over the Magisterium which made them into a kind of second Eve and second Adam. However news of that never - I think - came back to Geneva,  so in Commonwealth that body carries on much as ever, indeed in some ways worse.) We saw in La Belle Sauvage what could become of someone wishing ill to their dæmon so there is a tinge of horror to this whole process. As a parent of a young person (Lyra is in her early 20s) I admit that at times I wanted to take Pan aside and tell him just to give Lyra a bit of time and space. She seems taken with some fashionable nonsense, that's all, but she'll soon see through it. But of course he's part of her so that would hardly work.

If I had a criticism of this, it would be that - spoiler ahead! - this discord seems a bit confected, in terms of the book it seems designed to separate Lyra and Pan, to enable her to explore the consequences of "separation" which form a theme later on. Looking at the specifics of the fashionable nonsense Lyra has swallowed - a kind of ultra Dawkins-esque reductionist realism, on the one hand, and a solipsistic denial of reality, on the other, neither allowing any time for wonder, imagination or the supernatural - it's hard to believe that the girl, now a woman, who lived through the events of His Dark Materials would be taken in for a moment, because that lived reality so strongly contradicts both. So this whole conflict seems a bit, well, staged, and therefore, slightly annoying.

But never enough to detract from what is a pacey and exciting story. (I didn't mind too much that the main inciting event - spoiler! - the murder of a clandestine agent on the bank of an Oxford canal, seemed a bit familiar from La Belle Sauvage). Pullman's construction of his alternate Oxford is also, as ever, a joy. I am lucky enough to live near our Oxford, and the resonance, the reality, that Pullman extracts from little references and in-jokes (such as that 'Little Clarendon Street had been adopted by Oxford's jeunesse dorée as a fashionable destination') is impressive (there's even a callout to Boswell's, a much loved and venerable department store that is sadly to close in a few weeks). His wider world, too, makes sense - the smoky atmosphere, the Gyptians, the machinations of the remote Magisterium and the collaborationist bureaucracies, men (mostly) who are not "bad" as such (or not all) but want an easy life.

If the darkness in the first part of the book came from Pan and Lyra's squabbling, in the second, it arises much more from world events. Lyra's world is, as Pullman gradually reveals, in crisis. There is religious and political turmoil in the East and refugees are heading away from this, to be treated with the same lack of care and lack of welcome that has been shown in our world to those fleeing the troubles in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

We first hear about these troubles from a distance, as a cause of economic crisis, and then see them more closely as Lyra travels East. She first sets out because she's menaced, hunted, threatened at home - it's not clear exactly why, though Pullman gives us some hints through glimpses of the inner Magisterium - but her journey gradually acquires a focus, and it is one that takes her into the heart off the storm, into greater peril than any sage faced in the previous trilogy, I think. In the course of that we are shown and told many dark things, not least that the match between dæmon and human is less permanent than we might have thought. I think Pullman is slightly retconning his world here - in His Dark Materials, separation from a dæmon was so traumatic, so vile, that it seemed it almost led to death (poor Billy clutching his fish) or at least, to psychic damage. Lyra and Will seemed to be the exception to that and as we will see, many people still won't accept the idea of a human with no dæmon. But as Lyra finds out, it is much more common that you'd think. That troubles her, alongside the gathering clouds of war, the personal threat to her and the cruelty meted out to the poor, the weak. There is not much sign here that the Republic of Heaven, which Lyra and Will swore to build, is being established. Perhaps Lyra was sidetracked by those fashionable philosophies? Will the quest she's on, headed, ultimately, in the heart os Asia, put her back on course?

Unlike its predecessor, The Secret Commonwealth doesn't come to a tidy end but leaves things in the middle of the action, with Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polsted (making a welcome return from La Belle Sauvage) all in danger and other loved characters suffering too.

I found it a gripping read. It isn't a book for children, but Pullman understands how to hook his readers - adult or child - and isn't above throwing in startling, nailbiting incidents which may deviate a bit from the main plot but which keep the tension high and allow his characters to shine - think of Alamo Gulch in His Dark Materials[3].

I did, as I have said, listen to this book rather than "reading" it and I found that the audio, narrated by Michael Sheen, really brought the story alive. Sheen uses dozens of voices, including giving Lyra a proper Oxford accent (the real, local accent, not the posh one) and imbuing the villains with appropriately menacing tones.

The story isn't perfect. I agree with those who think (more spoilers!) we would better have been spared the whole Malcolm-fancies-teenage-Lyra bit. While very tastefully achieved, told from a distance and with Malcolm portrayed as very honourably distancing himself form any hint of anything bad, it still comes over a bit icky. Just no.

Also, I could have done with more followthrough on some of those startling incidents - several times in this book, something startling happens, I mean something really AMAZINGLY salient (you'll know these things when then they happen) and then - nothing. No passing mention in the following days, no reaction in the (often overheard) secret councils of the Magisterium. Nothing.

But this is still a better book to read than many that you'll see piled high on the bookshop tables this Christmas. I'd say it lives up to the expectations. It's fun, it's scary - deeply, morally scary - it's pertinent and warning (look what's happening to two of the main characters on trains towards the end). A book not to be missed.

[1] Do read Lyra's Oxford, before or after this - it provides a wealth of helpful hints and material that support The Secret Commonwealth.

[2] Don't ask me if by "Pullman's world" I mean, Lyra's world, or the whole set of parallel ones that includes Will's - but which is meant to be ours. I don't know. I would like to ask him (Pullman, not Will).

[3] Pullman loves his filmy references, doesn't he? Look at the title of the other "companion" book, Once upon a Time in the North.

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