The Book of Dust: Book I
This review is overdue because I read this book back in January, but the delay doesn’t point to anything rather than my own inefficiency. I’d asked for it for Christmas, eager to return to the otherworldly Oxford that I knew so well from His Dark Materials. After so many years, I did wonder whether Pullman would be able to carry off the same magical mixture that he achieved in the original: part children’s story, part moral fable, part religious allegory, which by the end had a truly epic sweep. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. For me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t quite have the same wild, transporting alchemy as Northern Lights, but Pullman’s writing remains entirely reliable. To read it is to give yourself up into the hands of a master storyteller.
We are some years before the events of Northern Lights. Young Malcolm Polstead lives an unremarkable life at the Trout Inn, where his father is landlord, going to school during the day and waiting on the guests at night. He’s a dreamer, whose horizons have been expanded by the exotic mixture of visitors to the inn, and by the proximity of the Priory of St Rosamund. With his daemon, Asta, he runs the limits of his little world – until, one day, something changes. Three men arrive at his father’s inn with strange questions about the Priory and a baby. And when, some time later, Malcolm hears that the nuns have, indeed, taken a baby into their care, he can’t resist going to have a look. His bond with the new arrival, an infant girl named Lyra, will prove to be a turning point of his life: a path into adventure, danger and all the perils of the world. For dark forces are also interested in Lyra and the boundless power of the Magisterium has the potential to reach everywhere.
I spent some time trying to judge who Pullman intended as his audience. Much of the book, especially its earlier part, is written with the simple clarity of a book for young readers, but it isn’t long before the narrative takes us into some extremely dark places of the soul. The sense of adventure never flags, but Malcolm’s journey is (at least initially) an inward one rather than the literal journey that Lyra takes in Northern Lights to the edge of the world and beyond. It’s about learning what is right and wrong, learning to listen to your heart (or your daemon), and having the courage to stand firm against evil. And evil is so very present here. There are allusions to child abuse, attempted rape and self-harm: evils far more familiar, alas, than the exquisite Mrs Coulter, who makes an elegant return (my first ‘glimpse’ of her monkey daemon made all the hairs on my arms stand on end; he’s a creature I’ve always found extremely unnerving).
But this time there’s a villain even more determined and vicious than Mrs Coulter: the sly Gerard Bonneville, whose three-legged hyena-daemon is one of the most chilling aspects of the whole book. Pullman’s use of daemons to represent inner character is particularly interesting here, I thought. Bonneville’s relationship with his daemon is one of loathing, often bursting out into actual violence. If our daemon is the expression of our innermost character, then presumably Bonneville’s interaction with his hyena is the result of deep, corroding self-disgust. And what of her leg? Was it an accident? Did he cut it off? Or did she chew it off herself – perhaps the most disturbing hypothesis? And what do each of these scenarios suggest about the way that the bond between person and daemon works? We learn more from other characters: Pullman lets drop, by the by, that builders, tilers and anyone else prone to working on a ladder usually has a bird-daemon, as otherwise the distance between person and daemon is too much for the soul to bear. I’m interested to see whether we’ll have more insights in the later books.
La Belle Sauvage is thrilling and sobering by turn, and Pullman’s disdain for organised religion remains strongly present, not least in the Hitler-Youth-esque League of St Alexander. And it isn’t just the themes that recall the earlier trilogy: it’s wonderful to have glimpses of familiar characters, too – most notably, of course, Lord Asriel, who appears here in all his antebellum nobility and glamour. I didn’t really feel that any of the new characters rivalled him for sheer fascination (apart, perhaps, from Bonneville, although thinking about Bonneville for too long makes me want to scrub the inside of my skin). Malcolm is a Boy’s Own kind of hero: loyal, doughty and capable in a crisis, while his friend Alice only just begins to round out from being a bit of a nag. I did wonder whether I could detect hints of a blossoming romance between them, but it may be too early to tell. Perhaps they both started to feel a little bit too much like archetypes: the faithful servant and the doubter-turned-convert.
And that struck me, I think, because towards the end the novel begins feeling like an allegory. Spoilers ahead, of course, so tread carefully. From the moment that Malcolm, Alice and Lyra are swept away on the flood, they seem to pass out of reality and into a realm where Pullman seems to be trying to make moral, rather than narrative points. Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a rather bizarre odyssey, where the children stumble across islands with nymphs; great houses with never-ending parties that seem designed to lure them from their path; and, strangest of all, the old gods of river and pool, whose appearance doesn’t seem to faze our young heroes all that much. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for Pullman, but I didn’t quite get what he was trying to do here and it all felt a bit as if I’d stumbled into the Pilgrim’s Progress or, as I said, a form of moralised English-folkloric Odyssey. Thoughts welcome below the line, of course.
I have faith in Pullman. I believe that he knows what he’s doing and I am willing to be led by the hand. At present I’m not entirely sure how the other two books in the trilogy will be structured: La Belle Sauvage obviously leaves us at a certain convenient point, and I’m not sure whether the later books will take up the same story or throw us far forward in time to start a new tale. Whatever happens, I hope that Pullman will remember to cast a bit of light onto the questions and strange events of this first book. Should we, for example, read this in light of Biblical parallels such as the Great Flood?
To be honest, nothing was going to live up to the wonder of reading Northern Lights for the first time, but La Belle Sauvage was well worth the wait: a captivating, old-school adventure underpinned by profound contemporary darkness.