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.