The Book of Dust, v2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman
This is another heavy volume, weighing in at 687 pages; although, that said, the hardback version is printed using a decent size font—11.5pt New Baskerville Std [fractions of points seems unnecessary to me, but I’m no typographer]—with a good line spacing, so the pages are very easy on the eye, and easy to read quickly: I was surprised at how quickly I was able to progress through it. Unexpectedly, this trilogy sandwich-filling does not follow chronologically from the previous, first, volume, reviewed here: we have jumped forward in time, leap-frogging over the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy, to a point where Lyra is now using the surname Silvertongue, which was given to her ten years previously by the polar bear king, Iorek Byrnison, instead of her previous name Belacqua, although she also subsequently adopts other pseudonyms as circumstances demand. She is a young woman of twenty, a student at Oxford, where she lived in her childhood, but studying at St Sophia’s college, rather than Jordan, which gave her sanctuary as a baby. The hero of the previous story, Malcolm Polstead, is now a scholar with a Doctorate, who teaches at Durham college, after having matriculated at Jordan college.
Lyra is initially unaware of this history, and her limited encounters with Malcolm, in his teaching capacity, have not hitherto been instinctively comfortable for Lyra; she is also somewhat estranged from her dæmon, Pantaleimon, at the beginning of the story, for what appears to be a variety of reasons, although the primary, and obviously most physically & mentally hurtful of those appears to be “that abominable betrayal … on the shores of the world of the dead, when she had abandoned Pan to go in search of her friend Roger. The guilt and shame would still be as fresh in her heart on the day she died, no matter how far away that was.” At the beginning of the story, on one of his solo nocturnal local expeditions, predominantly to escape the oppressive atmosphere between them, Pan observes a murder which, along with the startling realisation that other human beings are able to voluntarily separate from their dæmons, sets in train a series of events which take Pan, Lyra and Malcolm on separate but almost equally perilous journeys to far-flung locations, trying to avoid not only death, but also capture by the ever-present, and increasingly powerful Magisterium.
The Secret Commonwealth of the book’s title is the liminal world of the imagination; a world which children can perceive or imagine, and which adults tend to forget or disregard as they mature, but the premise of the story is that it can exist if you believe it can: according to one of Lyra’s trusted friends, a Gyptian by the name of Giorgio Brabandt, it is “The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.” Imagination is one facility which Pan thinks Lyra has lost, mainly as a result of her recent reading of books which praise rationality above what cannot be proved scientifically, so his main purpose in journeying afar is to retrieve Lyra’s lost imagination, as if it is a faculty with a physical manifestation. The history of the Magisterium is also given in the book, and it bears similarities with the Christian religion as we know it, but it is also significantly different: it is as if The Inquisition was able to become permanently institutionalised, and The Magisterium is Pullman’s not-so-subtle allegory of The Inquisition, with all the iniquity it embodied.
As usual, Pullman demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge, but also his compassion for humanity, especially the plight of refugees—no less distressing now than it has ever been—and using Lyra’s inner voice, he says: “Aisha in the company of others like her, moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of the little she had. … being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” The acknowledgments at the end include, in addition to the usual thanks to the team members & friends who have helped in the realisation of the book, a touching mention of one of the characters in this story, whose name, Nur Huda el-Wahabi, is that of a real person, and is used as a memorial to his loss in the Grenfell Tower fire. The cliffhanger at the end of this volume is not unduly distressing, thankfully, but it it sufficiently intriguing to retain interest in the overall story arc [for this reader, anyway]; this is not a book for children, however: young adult at the very least. A quote from the dust-jacket of the book [no pun intended] is worth giving here, because I think it is accurate: “It is a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you.” The hardback I read was published in 2019 by David Fickling Books, London, ISBN 978-0-241-37333-0. A trade paperback is also available: ISBN 978-0-241-37334-7.