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2 October 2019updated 10 Oct 2019 11:41am

The Secret Commonwealth displays Philip Pullman’s miraculous gifts for storytelling

Pullman’s political and social worlds echo ours in the thrilling second volume of The Book of Dust.

By Erica Wagner

Towards the end of the long, eventful and hazardous journey Lyra Belacqua makes during the course of The Secret Commonwealth, she meets a man called Abdel Ionides, a merchant. Lyra has travelled east and east, far from Oxford, far from anywhere she knows, carried by fear and sorrow and longing. It would do a disservice to disclose the reason for her travels, or what she seeks; but no one who knows Lyra would doubt her sense of purpose. Ionides offers to guide her but warns her of the dangers they will face. “We shall be treading on the borders of the invisible, trespassing in the realm of the uncanny,” he tells her, and demands a high price for his help. But Lyra haggles, for she is unfazed by what he describes. “I have spent weeks of my life in the presence of the invisible and the uncanny,” she replies. “They are not strange to me.”

Nor are they strange to the readers who have become devoted followers of her remarkable adventures. We first met her, a fierce girl of around 12, in Northern Lights, the book that introduced readers not only to Lyra but to Pullman’s vivid, alternative steampunk universe, one that runs at an angle to our own. His Oxford is recognisable yet strange: there is no Jordan College in today’s city. In Pullman’s world there are anbaric lights instead of electric ones; chocolatl is a favoured drink and images appear in photograms. Most strikingly, human beings have daemons, animal-spirits which reflect and challenge the people to whom they belong. To add to the autumn excitement brought about by the publication of The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman’s world will be made visible on-screen in November in the BBC’s much-anticipated adaptation of the trilogy known as His Dark Materials, a much welcome reboot following the 2007 release of The Golden Compass, an unsatisfying film adaptation of Northern Lights.

His Dark Materials was completed in 2000 with the publication of The Amber Spyglass, in which Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon were forced to venture to the world of the dead; readers had to wait 17 years for La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is an embodiment of the complex, Blakean philosophy that underpins all these novels, which are, as well as being adventure stories suitable for sophisticated readers of all ages, fascinating investigations into the nature of morality and of the imagination. Pullman takes the title of this latest volume from a 17th-century book of the same name: written by a Scottish clergyman called Robert Kirk, it is an account and analysis of his parishioners’ beliefs in the fairy world. Pullman’s interests run very much in parallel to Kirk’s.

Lyra’s world is controlled by an ecclesiastical authority known as the Magisterium, devoted to the aggressive suppression of heresy; suffice to say that many of Lyra’s escapades concern her efforts to escape its clutches. In La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is a baby, and her origin story is told: central to that story is the son of an innkeeper, an 11-year-old boy called Malcolm Polstead; their lives become inextricably intertwined.

The Secret Commonwealth jumps forward 20 years: Lyra is now a young scholar at a women’s college in Oxford, St Sophia; Malcolm – just 30 years old, but seeming dry and dusty to Lyra, who has no recollection of their early connection – is also a scholar himself. Soon their fates will become aligned again in ways neither could ever have imagined.

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Pullman is a staggeringly gifted storyteller, and in The Secret Commonwealth his talents are on full display. Delighted as I was to re-enter Lyra’s world in La Belle Sauvage, at times the story – of Malcolm’s care for the baby Lyra, and his efforts to keep her out of the claws of the Magisterium – seemed almost too straightforwardly narrative: and then, and then, and then. Its sequel is a far more intricate and, therefore, rewarding book. As Pullman says in his introduction, “events have consequences, and sometimes the effects of what we once did take a long time to become fully apparent”. And so the events set in motion in earlier books begin here to coalesce.

The novel starts with a murder and a double mystery: for the murder is witnessed by Pan, Lyra’s daemon, who is out at night, on his own, in Oxford. If you are an adept of Pullman’s, you will note the significance of this, for when daemons and humans are separated both suffer terrible emotional and physical suffering. How Pan and Lyra have become able to separate is one of the central engines of this book. Lyra – energetic, curious, imaginative – has become distanced from Pan, and this is a source of existential pain. “How absurd it was, that the two of them were one person, and yet they found it so hard to talk together or even endure each other’s company in silence.” We might call that depression; one of Pullman’s talents is to make his fantasy universe embody the threats, sorrows and joys of the so-called real world. In The Secret Commonwealth Lyria is troubled by new burdens – the burdens of adulthood.

Pullman’s political and social worlds echo ours as much as his conjuring of the psychological realm. The murder Pan witnesses reveals Pullman’s MacGuffin – the object or quest which will advance the major strands of the plot. The dying man instructs Pan to make off with his wallet: “Take it away – don’t let them get to it – it’s all up to you and your –” Who’s them? What’s “it all”? And your… who? Off we go.

The mystery concerns the production of a special kind of rose essence, as powerful in its way as Lyra’s alethiometer – her truth-telling device. The forces of good and evil are at war in ways that often bring to mind present-day concerns: the new Master of Jordan, for instance, comes not from academia but from the board of a giant pharmaceutical company, bringing unwelcome changes to the college. And as Lyra travels east she encounters more and more refugees: “There was a barrier that was invisible and intangible between them and the citizens of Smyrna, because they had no homes; they were like people without daemons, people missing something essential.”

The novel gallops forward, full of danger, delight and surprise. Nearly miraculous, it seems, is Pullman’s ability to sketch character, place and motive in just a few lines; he has a rare ability to make us care about his creations, however far-fetched they may seem. I will not tell you of the plight of the Furnace-Man; I will tell you that you will weep when you discover it.

As Lyra travels through Europe and into Asia on her quest, she stops in Prague; there she has another encounter with a stranger, a man called Vaclav Kubicek – the two share a strange and terrible secret, and form a special bond. “The hidden world exists, with its own passions and preoccupations,” Kubicek tells her, and from time to time its affairs leak through into the visible world.” This is the secret commonwealth revealed to Lyra – and to the lucky reader – in this terrific book.

The Book of Dust, Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth 
Philip Pullman
Penguin and David Fickling Books, £20, 704pp

This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain