La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, 1)
David Fickling Books/ Penguin, 19 October 2017
HB, audiobook, 546pp
This is the second in my occasional series "books I bought but hadn't read yet". As with the last, the reason is the sheer mass of "now" books coming along.
For La Belle Sauvage, I did something I'm increasingly turning to - bought it again as an audiobook and listened in the car on the way to and from the station. I'm not commuting every day right now, so that means I took several weeks to hear it all - then got frustrated and devoured the final 150 pages in an evening.
The narration of this by Michael Sheen is perfect: resonant, clear, authoritative, almost as if one could hear the author writing the book aloud. Beyond that, of course, the story itself shines. As with His Dark Materials, the character of Lyra's world (for want of a better name) is felt, rather than told, from the start: that slightly sulphurous, peppery feel of a dangerous, subtly different universe. All the detail - the superficially old-fashioned Oxford, the familiar-but-different vocabulary, the terror of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the horrific sneaks of the League of St Alexander, the vile obscenity of Bonneville - only fills in that picture and confirms it.
And so we're away, into a perfectly realised world, a perfectly realised Oxford, in the midst of, basically, a spy story. Malcolm, our hero, is a softly spoken, intelligent, resourceful boy upon whom impossible burdens will be thrust but who never thinks to refuse them. Only at one stage towards the end do we catch him thinking, I'm not old enough for this, but even then he remains brave, remains loyal. Yet Malcolm isn't a cardboard hero, he develops through this story, observes, learns, deduces, arguing things out with his daemon. His changing relationship with Alice, the strange, sulky kitchen girl from the Trout - the inn his parents keep - is a joy to behold. (And there are depths to Alice). Neither really understands or trusts the other at the start, I think, yet they find themselves having to depend on each other all the same, negotiating the relationship even amidst heartstopping dangers.
The two kids are very much at the centre of this story. There are others we see a bit of - especially Dr Hannah Relf, but also Lord Asrael, the nuns at Godstow Priory (reimagined here standing still, across the river from the Morese-less Trout Inn) - and of course Mrs Coulter Herself - but these are very much supporting parts, however important those adults may be. (They may feature in further books of this trilogy, who knows?)
Pullman does an excellent job of keeping up suspense and creating a real sense of things going on, despite our knowing, in a sense, how it will turn out - that baby Lyra will survive, that she will inherit an alethiometer, and what she will achieve in His Dark Materials. There are clearly many conflicting parties here, with the nightmarish, theocratic regime operating through numerous, often conflicting, arms and the forces of good, if I can call them that, lacking understanding of what's going on. (I say "if I can call them that" because Pullman is under no illusions that Oakley Street - his undercover resistance - will use ends to justify means when it suits them).
It's an excellent, very readable, very listenable story. My own children are grown up now but I'd happily have read this to them as a bedtime story - as I did the earlier trilogy - from say age 10 or 11 on: yes there's some swearing in here, some troubling themes but nothing one shouldn't be ready to explain (and a great deal that one ought to want to explain - Pullman's illustration of creeping Fascism in everyday life is chilling).
As the first trilogy referenced Paradise Lost, so I understand this one does The Faerie Queene. Big confession time: I haven't read that - so I can't say how relevant it is, although I can see, in the final third of the book, a rather more fantastical atmosphere than earlier, one that dallies with river gods, Fae enchanted realms. One might contrast this with the very down to earth, workmanlike tone of the early chapters - whether Pullman's writing about spyycraft or woodwork, he values competence, skill and application and at first this seems a far remove from negotiating one's way down the Thames amidst the awoken spirits of Albion. But Malcolm shows as much determination and wisdom at the latter as the former - you'll cheer him on as he manages one deadly situation after another, always gracious, modest and kind. So there isn't as much contradiction here as you might thing. take things as you find them, Pullman seems to be saying. Understand the rules. Learn how to get where you want. Do your best and never give up. Always be kind, never be cruel, never be cowardly (you might recognise that last bit and it isn't directly stated here - but is very much in tune with Pullman's themes, I think).
To sum up - I'm SO glad I finally turned to this book and now I'm just desperate for the next as, 15 years ago (15!) I waited for The Amber Spyglass.