Book review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) by Philip Pullman

WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING PHILIP PULLMAN HAS EVER WRITTEN. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK. 

Philip Pullman can tell a good story. I put off reading The Secret Commonwealth because I didn’t know whether, after so long, I was ready to meet Lyra again. I suppose I had the same fear we all have when we meet an old friend once more, after a long time apart. I was scared we’d no longer have anything in common, that the connection I used to feel to Lyra would have disappeared. But I needn’t have worried — the second part of Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy was both enjoyable and gripping.  

It begins twenty years after the end of Volume One, La Belle Sauvage, and seven years from the end of The Amber Spyglass. Lyra is now an adult and a university student, struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it, as she gets swept up in a dangerous quest across Europe and Asia. 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m slightly obsessed with the series again now. I somehow didn’t realise that The Book of Dust was going to be a trilogy rather than a duology, and when I discovered that none of my burning questions would be answered at the end of those nearly 700 pages, I felt deeply frustrated and impatient. Still, it’s nothing like the way I felt after the end of The Amber Spyglass. Teenage me cried for literal days about the tragic separation of Lyra and Will. The emotional trauma caused was far greater than the end of any of my own real-life romantic entanglements. 

Pullman is clearly now trying to set us up for a romance between Lyra and Malcolm, the protagonist in La Belle Sauvage, who crops up again in Commonwealth as another central character. I’m far from convinced. I don’t like the positioning of Malcom as a romantic hero and no amount of love letters between Malcolm and Lyra will convince me otherwise. 

I think part of the problem for me is that I didn’t really enjoy La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm was ok as a character in that book, but I didn’t appreciate the magical-mystical-mythical bent of the story.

I did go into Commonwealth with some trepidation as a result, but I preferred what was done here. At the heart of this new trilogy is the idea of the secret commonwealth itself. This is the mysterious world of magic, myth and fantastical creatures (including daemons) which Pullman envisages juxtaposed against cold and unfeeling rationality. (Pullman took the phrase from the title of Scottish writer Robert Kirk’s  17th century compilation of ghost stories and fairy tales.)

As a motif, I found it a bit forced. The weakest part of the HDM trilogy was the brow-beating about organised religion, and here I rolled my eyes quite a lot over Pullman’s equally didactic message on the ills of overt rationality. I do think it’s interesting to see this new trilogy as a riposte to some of the critique of his first three volumes — there’s definitely scope to explore both trilogies side by side and examine how his rhetoric has changed! 

Pullman is not subtle when he has a political point to make. The refugees we hear about in Commonwealth, heading from Africa and the Middle East to Europe in desperate hope of refuge, are a case in point. Much as I agree with Pullman’s sentiments, I felt that this aspect of the novel felt grating and forced. It’s a small detail, but one which broke the flow of the story for me and brought me abruptly back to our own unpleasant reality. 

That aside, Lyra’s world was as vividly imagined as ever. I really liked some of the new information we got about daemons and the way they work. I  loved reading about adult Lyra, and the way Pullman imagined her life after her great adventure. The rift between her and Pan was realistic and handled well. The story rollicked along, and despite only being mildly interested in all the machinations of the religious organisations involved, I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. 

This is unmistakably the middle book in a trilogy – there’s so much left unresolved. I like the way things have been set up though, and it’s not an exaggeration to say I’m desperate for more. I’m holding out hope for the return of Will in the third book. I had no idea how passionately I still cared until I re-entered Lyra’s world. 

I’m actually surprised about how much I enjoyed this book, especially as I was lukewarm on Belle Sauvage. I’m immersed in this world again and fully invested in the central mystery Pullman has created. Just don’t try to foist Malyra on me – I’m not here for it and I never will be. 

What I’ve Learned About Friendship as a Parent

Nobody told me that being a good friend would mean leaving my kid at home

Back in the time before Corona, I wrote a piece on Medium about the difficulty of combining friendship and parenthood. Of course, now it feels hopelessly dated and quaint, with all the talk of actually meeting other human beings in person and frequenting bars and cafés. You may still enjoy it, as a relic of a more innocent time, and a reminder of the problems we’ll hopefully encounter again one day.

My Five-Star Reads of 2019

I love statistics. I’m one of those people who obsessively studies the data on their Fitbit, to no perceivable end — what actual good does it do me to know how little I slept last night? And yet, I’m fascinated. I’m assuming it’s a form of narcissism rather than an actual interest in data; self-obsession masquerading as self-improvement. (If you’ve ever spent hours staring at your Strava splits, this is you too.)

Anyway, I digress. My newly favourite stats are those which Goodreads collects about my reading habits. (Let’s set aside for a moment the uncomfortable fact that GR is owned by Amazon and so this is all undoubtedly being mined in order to make a profit from me.)

I’ve never really reflected back on this information though, so I thought it would be interesting to consider the books I rated five stars on Goodreads in 2019. 

It was quite disconcerting to examine this list — it’s so random and obviously subjective that I feel uncomfortable saying that these were the best books I read in 2019. Looking over my four star books, there are some which are definitively ‘better’ and some which I’d much rather reread now. 

But let’s stick with the premise — at the time I read each of these books, I considered them worthy of five stars.

1. The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This was my first five-star read of 2019, and it didn’t come along until almost the end of February. Maybe that influenced my rating – I can’t remember it all that vividly and the Goodreads reviews indicate that this is a divisive one. I know exactly what appealed to me about it though — it combines both time travel and parallel timelines/multiple universes in one romantic package. Oh, and Shakespeare is a character. Your enjoyment of this one is going to depend on whether that intrigues you or fills you with horror. 

2. The Witch Elm by Tana French

I’m a massive fan of Tana French, and this standalone novel didn’t disappoint. It’s smart and twisty and compelling. It’s also pretty dark, which always appeals to me. I’m desperate to read it again now.

3. Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

I re-read this one purely out of nostalgia but it fully deserves five stars. It’s a children’s book which contains magic, orphans, evil sisters, an amazing castle and plenty of adventure. I love every page of it and I’m not ashamed. 

4. Ordinary People by Diana Evans

This is another which is rated surprisingly poorly on Goodreads. Literary fiction tends to perform badly over there – genre fiction is far more popular. The writing here is beautiful, but all that really happens is an examination of one couple’s marriage. That was more than enough for me. I felt a powerful connection to this book — it was set in Crystal Palace, where I lived for four years. For context, that’s a tiny area of London so every street name mentioned was evocative for me. It also dealt unflinchingly with motherhood, in a way that I really needed. 

5. Sula by Toni Morrison

I raved about this one after reading it back in August. This is both the earliest published work on this list and the one by the most established author. 

6. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This book has the honour of being the only one by a male author which I rated five stars in 2019. I might need to go back and try to work out what percentage of male/female authors I read that year. I’m intrigued whether my reading preferences skew towards books written by female authors or whether I attempt both in equal measure but just preferred the ones by women last year. Anyway, this man managed to write a book which was inventive, original and utterly heartbreaking. 

7. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson 

This was so beautifully written and powerful. The narrative perspective switches between different members of three generations of one family, and explored their changing relationships over time. I absolutely loved it. 

8. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Reid Jenkins

This book generated a lot of buzz last year, and it was completely deserved. It’s original and compelling – I don’t know or care much about the music industry but this book made me feel as if I did. 

9. Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

This will appeal to a niche audience, but if you are part of that niche you are guaranteed to love it! (Fans of Harry Potter slash fan fiction transposed to another fantasy setting with a sexy vampire thrown in for good measure.) It’s a sequel but it did live up to expectations. 

10. Educated by Tara Westover

This is rated incredibly highly on Goodreads, and I totally agree. I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did but Westover’s tale of escaping the grinding poverty and gleeful ignorance of her family made for captivating reading. This is the only non-fiction book on my list and honestly it read more like a novel. I would definitely recommend this to anyone. 

So far, it’s looking doubtful whether I’ll even scrape together ten five-star reads in 2020 – almost a third of the way into the year, and to date I’ve rated just one of the thirty-five books I’ve read as five stars. (Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo) Perhaps I’m being more selective as a reader, or maybe I just made some amazing choices last year. What have been your top reads of last year, and this year so far?