Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, #2), David Fickling Books, October 2019, 784 pp., RRP $32,99 (pbk), ISBN 978024137334
This book looks intimidating. At over 780 pages, The Secret Commonwealth might seem difficult to get through, but it’s not. Anyone familiar with Pullman’s style (and let’s face it, no one would be reading this if they weren’t) will know that reading his words is effortless and immersive. But writing a review of it? That’s hard. It is important not to give out too many spoilers, so this will be vague and focus on themes rather than plot. For starters, as usual, Pullman includes many narrative voices. We don’t just get Lyra’s perspective, we also spend time with Pan, Malcolm, other recognisable people, and even quite minor characters too. Pullman has no interest in narrowing our scope. This is a book that expands His Dark Materials universe even wider and deeper, and a word that keeps coming to mind is ambitious.
By the time we reached the end of The Amber Spyglass, we are very clear on Pullman’s (negative) position on organised religion. Here, we see how much uglier and crueller the Magisterium is. They are willing to go to any length to control and manipulate the truth of Dust and are aware of the importance of Lyra Silvertongue in these endeavours. While we move vast distances and travel to many lands, the story never feels rushed. This makes sense, given the length of the book. But we are treated to exquisite details and in-depth conversations, so neither do we feel bored or restless. Lyra’s journey is part reacquainting with her past, and part moving into an uncertain future, and unfortunately (for some) this does result in a cliff-hanger ending.
Every mention of Will Parry made me miss him all the more. The best aspect of The Subtle Knife was the journeying together of Will and Lyra, and I was disappointed to see this doesn’t happen here. All the characters are on their own journey, trying to fulfil a solitary part of the quest, and each seems lonely and vulnerable. I have to tell you, the overall tone of the novel is one of nostalgia and yearning, and I was on edge, waiting for terrible events to overwhelm our heroes. Whereas the themes of His Dark Materials novels encompassed love and secularism, here they explore the loss and lack of imagination and the ramifications on the wider world. Pullman asks, is a total reliance on rational thought a good thing? What will happen to art, poetry and music if we abandon our sense of wonder and passion? The answer of course is no, but how do we find a balance, a way for both to co-exist in a world of dichotomy and increasing disparity of power. The way Pullman makes us consider our own world while despairing with Lyra over hers is sometimes not very subtle, but it’s always insightful and true.
The story is straight forward and linear. We are not subjected to an undue amount of violence or death. However, there is one graphic scene to be aware of: Lyra is accosted and barely escapes a sexual attack. It’s shocking and unexpected, and we wonder why those two pages are necessary at all. It comes right at the end of the novel, and Lyra is already beaten down by disappointment, and this leaves her even more defensive and disillusioned. But of course, our hero often must hit rock bottom before there is triumph and celebration.
The Secret Commonwealth is a second novel. We move forward, and we reach the journey’s end, right where we are meant to be. But there are still so many questions, and it appears that the villains hold all the cards. The anticipation and speculation for the next book will only build in intensity. Let’s hope the wait is not too long.
Reviewed by Trisha Buckley