I finally finished this immensely thick paperback last night, after six nights of reading. I’m not a slow reader, but the time I took to get through this novel – volume two in The Book of Dust trilogy – was down to its interminability. It is 719 pages long, and concludes nothing in itself, setting up many questions and problems that we will need to remember for volume three. Pullman kept me reading, no doubt about that, but reading became a burden of wanting doggedly get to the end to find out what happens, and that’s a disappointment.
The Secret Commonwealth is not as good as La Belle Sauvage (2017), the first in the trilogy of The Book of Dust, partly because it’s so damn long, but also because it’s a baggy monster in plotting and the shape of the story. The title refers to the secret underworld of magical creatures and things of the imagination, which the rational philosophers say cannot exist, but which we know do, because daemons do, alethiometers do, and because there is a man in Prague made of fire, waiting for Lyra. The rational philosophers are the intellects gone bad in this world, men who poison the imagination of the young by their clever theories.
The novel is about the separation of people and their daemons, which we have already seen to terrible effect in His Dark Materials, and in La Belle Sauvage. Separations naturally lead to journeys. Lyra – now a twenty year old student at Oxford – goes on a journey, because her daemon Pantalaimon has also gone travelling and she is desperate to find him. Malcolm – last seen in La Belle Sauvage as an eleven year old boy of peculiar bravery and perseverance, now an Oxford Scholar and a secret agent of the resistance – also travels into Central Europe and then Asia, to track Lyra down, and to complete the mission begun when Pantalaimon witnessed a murder by the canalside in Oxford’s Jericho. Thus the reader needs to pay attention to the three main journeys, plus the events in Oxford and elsewhere in Brytain that need to be attended to, and the conversations and events in Geneva developing the plans to reaccumulate the different elements of the Magisterium. More journeys arise from these, by many secret agents scurrying about Europe trying to find Lyra, and by a vicious young man called Olivier Bonneville, the Magisterium’s star alethiometer reader, who has a particular interest in getting to Lyra and Malcolm before anyone else does.
The journeying is endless and confusing. Place names and buildings meld into each other, and the people that Lyra meets on her blind rush towards the deserts of the Near East are disconcertingly ready to meet her, and they know a lot about her. It seems clear that Pullman is working at a second level with these encounters, and they will all make sense when we reach the end of the journey, but caught in the middle of them, it feels a chaotic blur of trains and people met and forgotten. The reader thus has to stay alert to the purpose of these meandering journeys through faceless cities that are all becoming disturbingly authoritarian.
Each traveller explains their purpose to the people they meet, they receive information, they occasionally perform a service, they observe the worsening conditions. The repetition of all this explaining is a leaden weight on the novel’s undeniable imaginative flights. Malcolm’s journeys are the steadiest, because he seems to know where is going, and his route shows us the network of spies and secret communications that sustains the Oakley Street resistance against the Magisterium, rational philosophers, and so on. Malcolm doesn’t know everything, and he does make mistakes, but he is a shining character of honesty and resource to encourage us to keep going. The best I can say about Lyra as a character is that she learns to be kinder and less self-absorbed, and to realise when she is not. If as a character she didn’t have Chosen One in luminous highlighter all around her, she’d be a pain in the neck I wouldn’t miss. But she’s learning to grow up, and that’s the point of these books about her. In a way, she’s more interesting when she is too direct, too ruthless, and completely uninterested in anything except her own purposes. Increasing empathy makes her a bit wet, though she is a ferocious fighter, and has powers of endurance that compel respect.
Pullman skimps on the practicalities too much, catching up with himself pages after I had begun asking about the detail. How can Lyra talk to so many people, buy the food and replacement clothes she needs, negotiate the hotel rooms, in a political atmosphere that gets increasingly more hostile to a young blonde woman travelling literally on her own? To be daemonless, or humanless, in this world is to carry a visible and emotional curse, drawing attention and causing Lyra, and Pan, big problems. We have no idea how many languages she speaks. Presumably Pan speaks the same number, since they are one person, but they both seems to have erratic swings of ease and difficulty in communicating with the people they need to speak to, or to understand when eavesdropping. How much different currency does Lyra have, or does Farder Coram’s present of gold cover all her practical needs? How long does it even last for? How does she manage to travel on trains for weeks among people she can’t or doesn’t want to chat to without a book to read?
But Pullman does a good job, though it doesn’t need a lot of imaginative skill, in creating a worryingly unstable Europe that is threatened by mysterious terrorists bent on destroying the rose growing industry in Turkey and points further east: rose oil being an essential component for many aspects of this alternative world. There are so many refugees and people sleeping on the streets; he is drawing modern Europe from the life. It’s also a grimly familiar misogynistic world – there is an episode of attempted gang rape in a train carriage that may be triggering for some.
I reread La Belle Sauvage before starting The Secret Commonwealth, which was necessary to remind of myself of where this story began. La Belle Sauvage is a better novel, being the right length for its coherent purpose. The Secret Commonwealth is simply too long for the story and the reader’s endurance. I am quailing at having to reread it when the concluding novel in the trilogy comes out.