Growing up is hard to do: Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, reviewed

Dr Susan Wardell, a His Dark Materials fan who grew up to be a social anthropologist, reviews the much-anticipated sort-of sequel, The Secret Commonwealth.

Is the world fundamentally dead, or alive? Philip Pullman asks in this new book, a thinly-veiled philosophical interrogation of “progressive thinking”.  

The book is rich in both human and political intrigue, set mostly in new geographic regions of a vast alternate world now familiar to his readers. We first traversed its fantastical horizons through the eyes of Lyra, a fierce 11-year-old rascal, in His Dark Materials. Travelling it in this book with Lyra as a world-weary 20-year-old university student, as she systematically questions every aspect of her reality, is unfortunately quite a lot less pleasurable.

Boom boom boom: His Dark Materials

I loved His Dark Materials. I was given a copy of the first book as a prize, during a high school awards ceremony, and became so immediately engrossed that I nearly missed my next on-stage appearance entirely. Around 14 years later, I was excited about the new series too, though the announcement had me wondering how Pullman could ever pull out a plot that “one-upped” the extraordinary metaphysical feats of His Dark Materials.

Yet Book I of the Dust trilogy, Le Belle Sauvage, released two years ago, was surprisingly intimate in scale. Set 12 years before the events of His Dark Materials, it followed publican’s son Malcolm as he battled through a supernaturally intense London flood to save baby Lyra. Now we’re at Book II. The Secret Commonwealth makes a sandwich of the first trilogy by swinging forward by 20 years. Malcolm has become Dr Polstead – scholar and former tutor to Lyra, who is herself again the central POV character.

I enjoyed the book. I really did. But certain things about it irked me. And since Pullman has plenty of literary minstrels to follow him with praises, I’ve decided to focus this review on unpacking what I consider the weaknesses or oddities of the book. 

Pullman has said this series is about consciousness, and the nature of being. But it seems to come at this from an oddly defensive position, and via a somewhat tangential route. Centrally, Pullman introduces two fictional authors whom Lyra herself is reading as an undergraduate – one representing relativism, the other rationalism. Meta much? These form straw men at the centre of Lyra’s lengthy internal musings about reality, morality, and boys. “There are certain ways of thinking that can kill a living person,” we read. And later “Can’t you see the emptiness of the worlds they describe?” At times it seems like a narrative skin has been stretched over the frame of a philosophical dialogue. Not always an enjoyable or successful taxidermy! Pullman doesn’t seem to trust his readers anymore, or his genre, to communicate that sort of richness through the narrative itself. He wants to spell everything out for us.  

At one point, one of the aforementioned fictional authors (the one “so rational he’s insane”) is interrogated by Pantalaimon – the externalised part of Lyra’s self that, in this universe, appears in animal, or “daemon” form. The author tells Pantalaimon he did not write his novel in some “morbid dreamland” but rather “built a narrative to show the logical outcome of superstition and stupidity”. The real author here seems to have built a narrative to show the (equally unpleasant) logical outcomes of rationalism or skepticism – this represented by Lyra, who has had her imagination “stolen” and is now half-convinced that the events of her childhood (and the previous series) were a mere imagining. Lyra suffers a great and terrible schism from Pantalaimon, too, as she grows up and into this way of thinking. 

Lyra and Pan in happier times (shown here played by Dafne Keen and an unidentified but appropriately magnificent ermine in the HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials).

While the plot hinges on Lyra’s estrangement from the magical dimensions of her world – (a spin, one supposes, on “the problem of Susan”, of which Pullman is all too aware) – this is what dulls the book down for a reader.

The POV of a child is an effective way of suspending audiences’ disbelief, letting us swallow living, magical worlds with an acceptance that doesn’t diminish wonder. Yet nothing imaginative is taken for granted in this book. Rather Pullman, like a dog with a bone, returns again and again to question the underpinnings of his own world. He seems to be defending himself, fighting the air, as he walks in philosophical circles. It is wearying. 

In a way though, Pullman is walking a well-trod route. This is the same ideological path that Europe has travelled, over hundreds of years, according to sociologists. First the post-enlightenment “disenchantment”; where a world once “alive” with supernatural forces and superhuman beings became gradually more mundane, more rational. On to the romanticists, with their passionate pleas for the return to nature, the revival of art, for spirituality and imagination. This all accompanied by a trend of secularising and privatising religion, which paved the way for Pullman’s own conveniently clear-cut separation of the mystical and the religious. However I was not a fan of his titular “Secret Commonwealth”,  the universalising term introduced in this book, as the narrative forges across national borders, as a way of describing the magical dimensions of all places. How very easy a thing for a British gentleman to do – to gather all the world’s folklore together under one’s own term, with a flourish, and think it very clever.

The persistence of the “evil magisterium” plotline also surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. Sure, he throws in an utterly good and utterly doddering saint, as if to mediate criticisms of his anti-church stance. But the convincing blend of bureaucracy, politics, and religion persists as a reasonable argument for systemic evil, despite the very occasional good individual.

*wistful sigh for back when Lyra was a dreamy rascal and Pan was her soul’s companion* (This pic also via the HBO series).

Pullman pulls his world parallel to our own in other ways too. This book goes as far as to include pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, and a refugee crisis. There is a painfully resonant scene where a small boat full of crowded refugees strikes disaster far from shore, for example. Yet of course, his parallels are selective. Page by page, the book’s geographical setting edges through Eastern Europe, towards Asia and the Middle East. But while Lyra dons a niqab at one point, basilicas stand in place of mosques in this world, and there is no mention of any religion but the magisterium’s church.

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 The moral questions that are perhaps more novel to this book are not those of systems, but of worldviews. Again via Lyra’s internal sparring with straw-man authors, Pullman spells out concerns for what is lost by either the worship of rationality, or a total denial of “truth” – equating the platform for morality with “human feeling” and imagination.

Mr. Pullman, I’m afraid you are preaching to the choir! It’s fairly safe to assume anyone that has paid nearly $30 to carry this enormous tome away from a bookstore is already fairly convinced of the merits of imagination. Still, you have served up a decent portion of travel, murder, spycraft, conspiracy, sex, and camels, to keep us reading through all the intellectualising: culminating in a tantalising juncture on the last page.

All said and done, there is no doubt Pullman is a master. This is a savvy, multi-layered fantasy and perhaps most importantly Pullman’s characters remain complex and likable, even when his ontology is looking a little glass-eyed. Like most books in the middle of a trilogy, his Book II takes us forward in time and space – to what, I cannot predict. But hopefully by the time we get there Pullman has made peace with his inverted cynicism and is ready to re-enter and let his gorgeous fantasy world be “nothing more than what it is”. Which is to say, alive and kicking, despite every interrogation.

The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Penguin Random House, $35) is available at Unity Books. 


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