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


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. 

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? 

(Not a) Book review: Emmeline Pankhurst (Little People, Big Dreams) by Lisbeth Kaiser and Ana Sanfelippo

A post masquerading as a book review when it’s really just a lengthy parental humblebrag

What do you want to know about me? Oh, here you go – I bought my 18 month old a book about Emmeline Pankhurst recently. There you go, infer all you like about my pseudo-intellectual, neurotic-feminist credentials. Does it sound like a dry read to you? It is. It’s so incredibly dry. Informative, absolutely, but there’s not an ounce of humour or even excitement to be gleaned from its pages. It talks about law-breaking, unjust arrests and daring acts of revolution with all the verve of an accounting manual. 

But E genuinely seems to like it. She now requests it in that autocratic manner of all toddlers – ‘Panks! Panks!’. I’m aware this sentence puts me squarely in the camp of Those Mums – the ones who swear their child’s favourite food is broccoli, and they’ve always preferred quinoa to chocolate. 

 I do feel faintly ashamed that my indoctrination is so blatant. I’d always assumed I would impart my political beliefs and values by osmosis and eye-rolling, in the manner of all parents everywhere. I thought it would take much longer before I could create a child who would confidently parrot my views in public. And yet here we are: I can pause at the end of a sentence in the book and she’s memorised the ending: ‘How were women treated E?’ ‘Unfairwly!’ ‘And what did they want?’ ‘Wotes…’ 

Bear in mind this is a child who only dimly grasps that she’s a girl and not a cat, and yet she’s able to regurgitate the word ‘suffragettes.’ What even is this? 

I can’t identify what E actually enjoys about the book. The story is quite abstract and the illustrations are pretty but unexciting. Yes, obviously, to be completely honest, I am of course hoping that her early fondness for this text predicts her incipient revolutionary values and superior intellect. Surely it’s either that or else I’m teaching her that it’s cool to break the law. Best to polish the anecdote anyway, so it can be trotted out either in court or in her Harvard graduation speech, as appropriate.

Book review: Going to Nursery by Laurence Anholt and Catherine Anholt

Having used books as a guide and a solace through all experiences of my own life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I have turned to these in order to instruct my child. Without faith in my own communication abilities, I bought a book called Going to Nursery to assist with psychological preparation (read: indoctrination) for that very life event. 

Unfortunately, this strategy may have backfired. There are several issues with this picture book which only became apparent after it arrived, to my dim surprise following a panicked nocturnal Amazon Prime purchase. 

First and most concerning, nursery is presented herein as a delightful utopia. Of course, I wanted E to eagerly anticipate her own admittance into this hallowed space, but I didn’t want her to be disappointed, or worse, to enjoy it more than being at home with me. Nursery, as depicted in this book, is chockablock with multitudes of cute, fluffy pets skipping through sunshine whilst laughing children play in pristine sandpits. I fear the reality of beginning in a Scottish winter will be far different. Our nursery has no animals that I know of but it is in the middle of the city, so perhaps we can hope a rat will make an occasional appearance. E will have access to an outside play area but it’s all rubber flooring rather than the idyllic flower-strewn meadow of this accursed book. There’s a dearth of adults in Going to Nursery too – only one seems to preside over the motley gang of children romping free through these pages. The adult-to-child ratios cruelly enforced by the powers that be will allow E no such freedom, I fear.

The brutal disappointments only continue. The children at this nursery eat biscuits for their snack, while I know very well that the menu at our nursery features such snacks as quinoa and broccoli quesadillas. Yes, really. Luckily E is convinced that the biscuits in the book are actually oranges so we may yet have dodged that bullet. 

More genuinely problematic is the narrative of the book, which explains that big children go to nursery whilst babies stay at home (with their mums, it’s tacitly implied). I mean, this…isn’t true? I assume it’s been written to prepare older children for preschool. But E still calls herself a baby and it breaks my heart a little every time I explain that she’s big enough for nursery. Potentially more psychologically damaging is the part of the story where a little boy suggests that crying for your mum at nursery is naughty. E has seized on this word and repeats it each time we get to that page. The boy is gently persuaded out of this belief, but E hasn’t grasped the concept of the unreliable narrator yet and takes his proclamation as absolute truth. 

 Probably best to set aside some of the funds I hope to earn while she’s in childcare for the eventual therapy bill.  I’ll be sure to keep meticulous records so that twenty years from now she can explain that it was with this very book that all her emotional difficulties began. 

Book review: Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

Without You, There is No Us is ‘literary nonfiction’, in the words of author Suki Kim. (She rejects the subtitle ‘A memoir’ which appears on the book’s cover – more on this later.) It details the six months she spent undercover teaching English at a private university in Pyongyang, North Korea. Unbeknownst to the evangelical American Christians running the university, she was not one of their number but an investigative reporter taking secret notes on her experiences.

I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew of North Korea before I read this book. Most of the foggy notions I had gleaned came from the film Team America: World Police. Yes, the one with the puppets, by the creators of South Park. Do you mean to say your cultural conceptions aren’t similarly marionette-based? 

Having read this book, I now feel better informed, in that I can now add the experience of one teacher at an isolated school for the elite to my meagre understanding of the country. This is an interesting and occasionally frustrating facet of Kim’s story: she aims to illuminate this mysterious and secretive country for the reader, and yet she’s pretty much confined to the university compound. During her limited opportunities to explore the rest of North Korea, she attempts to extrapolate what life may be like for its other citizens. A grim picture emerges. The students in her book are the elite of the country, but they live a dull and restricted existence. They are effectively prisoners, with no freedom of thought, movement or action. But even so, it’s clear that within the context of their country, they are extremely fortunate. 

Kim’s book is a strange mix of memoir and investigative journalism. She was clearly attempting to create a groundbreaking work of investigative journalism, but her access to this world was too narrow in scope to tell us much about North Korea itself. There’s a further conflict when it comes to her students – she wants to teach them about the outside world but she fears for their safety if she does so. The book doesn’t really function as an ‘investigation’ as there’s little revealed over the course of the story which wasn’t obvious as soon as Kim arrived at the school. 

I can see why her publishers chose to market this instead as a memoir.  It definitely falls more squarely into that category but it’s an equally frustrating read when viewed through that lens. Her own life is uncomfortably present but isn’t particularly compelling material. The references to her boyfriend in New York seem gratuitous and don’t add much to the book. There’s no narrative arc or climax, or grand realisations on the part of the author or the students. Kim’s own (South) Korean heritage underpins the story, and yet she shows again and again how distant her own experiences of being Korean are from the students, without ever really interrogating and examining this in a meaningful way. 

The narrative brings ethical issues into question. Kim was lying to the organisation which brought her to North Korea, and concerns have been raised that her deception of the students could have endangered them. The students are presented as astonishingly naive and as essentially brainwashed, with no ability to think or operate on an individual level. She avoids any examination of the  American fundamentalist Christians she works with and doesn’t discuss their agenda or the ultimate aims of the school. There’s also plenty of self-aggrandising – reading the gushing praise heaped on Kim by her students is often rather cringe-inducing.  

The book comes to an abrupt end when she leaves the school. There’s no afterword or follow-up at the end of the narrative, which drives home the true finality of it all – there can’t be, as she’ll never be able to have contact with these students again. Despite the flaws in the book as apiece of literature, it was still a fascinating read, offering a tantalising glimpse into an unfamiliar world. 

Book review: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad

This book is a journalistic masterpiece. At the same time, it was extremely hard to read. It’s also the most difficult book I’ve ever tried to review.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is not just an account of Breivik’s terrorist attack on 22nd July 2011, but also details Breivik’s life until that point and the trial which followed.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing this is that I read it in translation. Sometimes when reading a translated work I can forget that it wasn’t written in English. With this book, I felt conscious of it at several points while reading. The text was so journalistic and pared back that the sentence structure took on an added significance. Sometimes it just felt a little clunky, a bit dry. There were turns of phrase which were given narrative importance and emphasis which I’m sure would have had more impact in the original Norwegian than they did in English. 

I’m aware how churlish the above paragraph sounds. This is another difficulty for the reviewer – how to treat a book which deals with such a tragedy? It seems somehow petty to pick at minor literary details when the greater discussion is of matters of life and death. Professional reviews of One of Us focus on the book’s subject matter, rather than analysing it in its own right as a literary work. 

I suppose some of my discomfort when it comes to writing this review stems from my own fear of succumbing to a ghoulish voyeurism. When a book handles such an atrocious crime is it ethical to quibble about its entertainment value? 

I’m not sure about the correct answers here, but I’m going to do my best to evaluate One of Us and share my thoughts on its handling of this sensitive subject matter. 

 One of Us has been compared, in scope and in its attention to detail, to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I haven’t read Mailer’s Pulitzer prize winning epic, but I have read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another classic of this genre. While In Cold Blood skipped over depicting the actual murder of the Clutter family, One of Us opens with a chilling in media res description of part of the massacre on Utøya island. It then backtracks to begin its forensic examination of Breivik’s personality and the familial, societal and political forces which helped mould him. 

The detail presented here is exhaustive. This dive into Breivik’s life prior to the massacre lasts for around 250 pages, or half of the book. Much of it was interesting but I did feel that a lot of this detail was included for the sake of journalistic completeness. In my opinion, the objectivity of the book wouldn’t have suffered if some authorial judgement had been used to filter and summarise the events of Breivik’s childhood and adolescence. A clear picture of Breivik does emerge from the material presented. He’s represented as a strange and lonely character, a misfit who failed to find a place within society.  (And whom society perhaps failed in turn, as a small child in a home strongly suggested to be abusive.) 

I haven’t read enough books dealing with true crime to know if this is unique, but one of the standout features of the book was its determination to make this as much the story of the victims as of Breivik. To achieve this, Seierstad interspersed material on Breivik with chapters recounting the lives of the victims and their families. This was obviously a laudable aim, but I found the execution a bit clumsy structurally. I think I would have preferred these chapters collected together and even expanded, rather than mixed somewhat randomly between the parts on Breivik. That said, even in its current form, these chapters were undoubtably powerful. By the time Breivik kills these children, the reader feels that they know them and their families intimately. It’s almost unbearably tragic to read, and I applaud Seierstad for painstakingly telling us about the teenagers’ relationships, ambitions, football skill, etc so that we can’t lose sight of just how atrocious the destruction of their young lives was. 

As the book goes on, its attention to detail and keen observation of Breivik lends it a true sensation of horror. The level of detail which was at times dull in the first half becomes excruciating in the second half. I nearly cried in public several times. This latter half of the book, handling the attack and its aftermath, is fascinating and horribly painful in equal measure. I do wonder whether the rather dry set-up was calculated. To return to the question of voyeurism, it’s almost as if Seierstad was saying – ok, here’s the macabre description of murder you came for. But first you’ve got to wade through pages and pages on Breivik’s teenage years as a graffiti artist. 

The question of Breivik’s sanity was crucial to the trial and is dwelt on in the book. He was deemed accountable in the end and given the maximum sentence allowed by law – just 21 years. The discussion of the sentence given is one of the few places within the text where any explicit editorial comment came through. The emergency service response to the attack was also (rightly) given short shrift by Seierstad. Throughout most of the book though, the narrator is deliberately absent. While In Cold Blood felt distinctly novelistic, One of Us was obviously striving for neutrality on questions such as Breivik’s accountability. And yet the choices made in its composition (focus on the failings of social services who had early dealings with Breivik’s mother, inclusion of chapters on the victims, detailing of the missteps made by police on the day of the attack) are all themselves purposeful and reveal Seierstad’s opinions. 

I think that’s absolutely fine. Knowing where the author stands doesn’t for me detract at all from the work involved here. I initially thought that much of the material dealing with the massacre had to have been invented, in the vein of In Cold Blood. I was totally wrong – the author’s note at the end details the huge amount of primary sources available to Seierstad, ranging from coroner’s reports and police interviews to phone recordings and accounts by survivors. Her commitment to the research involved was clearly meticulous. 

The final page of the book’s 500+ also offers some modest editorialising. Seierstad posits that this is a story of belonging, and what happens to individuals who have no sense of belonging anywhere. On this basis she argues for the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive Norway.  

The part of this powerful book which really stands out to me isn’t anything to do with Breivik’s rather pitiful life or terrible crimes. It’s not the horrendous actions he undertook or anything to do with his political motivations. I found one small vignette Seierstad included utterly heartbreaking – the tale of a teenage immigrant to Norway, Mehdi, whose only friend (Simon) was killed on the 22nd of July 2011. I wonder where he is now – Seierstad doesn’t know or doesn’t tell us. 

One of Us was a difficult and at times far from enjoyable read, but stands as a remarkable achievement in nonfiction.