All week this Christmas week we countdown the best six books of 2017. Number three: the first book in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, described by our London correspondent Scarlett Cayford as ‘just about perfect’.
I was doubtful. I saw Pullman speak on the banks of the very river that takes centre stage in La Belle Sauvage, and heard him describe his new series as an “e-quel” (both prequel and sequel) to His Dark Materials. He was delightful, a candid and pithy speaker with strident opinions about Brexit. But I was doubtful: because His Dark Materials made up the backbone of my literary childhood, because the scene where Will breaks the knife for the second time makes me weep, and because how was I supposed to truly re-invest in a world where my hero and heroine were, respectively, not yet present and barely six months old?
And also, let’s be honest, because the term “e-quel” is bad and terrible.
Series like His Dark Materials don’t come around very often. I’m struggling to think of another that has taken me in the same way. Maurice Gee’s Halfmen of O, perhaps, and Harry Potter, of course, but even they failed to so completely build as a world as Pullman did. Marisa Coulter and her golden monkey, Lord Asriel and his snow leopard; the spires in the Northern Lights and a dried piece of fish clutched in childish hands; the stinking seal furs and the bears streaked with blood; the cliff ghasts and the gore. Glasses of golden Tokaj and windows into worlds and honey licked from the bleeding ear of a cat. The knife and the spyglass and the alethiometer, perfect instruments sprung from a perfectly brilliant brain. I was doubtful and yet I understood, because how could you build a world like that, and not return to it again and again and again?
I, a mere reader, think about his characters most days: Lyra on the bench, Will and his mother, Roger’s atoms dissolving in the air. It must be haunting. It must be all-consuming. I don’t know how Pullman has a conversation with someone without picturing their daemon. I don’t know how he isn’t completely mad, driven back into the corners of his own brain, which is, after all, capable of producing something so much more wonderful than what we have around us.
I needn’t have worried. We’re in safe hands with Pullman, who steers La Belle Sauvage with ease. The author, who has identified his own daemon as a raven, is entirely in his element in this return to Lyra’s Oxford in a novel that is dark and layered and peppered with shiny treasures.
La Belle Sauvage centres around the life of Malcolm, a child who lives in a pub in Oxford. It is impossible not to compare him to Will, the similarly-aged hero of The Subtle Knife. Both are intelligent, and curious, and inquisitive; both are loyal to their parents, and practical, and capable of fierce anger. Where Will’s defining characteristic becomes his determination, though, Malcolm’s is his thirst for knowledge. It places him among the nuns, who feed his brain; it guides him to Hannah, the Oxford scholar questing for mastery of the alethiometer; it points him in the direction of Lord Asriel, the uncertain new father; and it sends him on his adventure down the swollen Thames.
Anyone who has ever read a Pullman book has considered what their daemon would be. It’s a way of digging into your personality without doing another excruciating Myers-Briggs test; an exercise in arrogance, or humility, as you assuredly assign yourself a snow leopard, or, glumly, a little trotting dog, and wait to see how people react. Pullman’s is not the only world that assumes a part of one’s nature to be animal. When Pottermore released their Patronus-assigning Harry Potter quiz three years ago, parents were emailing in, irate, because their child had been designated a salmon, and was in tears. A fucking salmon. Maybe part of your nature “is bird-formed, and beautiful”. Or maybe you’re a fish. Most likely, you don’t want to know.
In La Belle Sauvage, the concept of the daemon is explored far more deeply than in any book before. It’s always been potentially problematic, particularly the parts where anyone in a servile position had an obedient dog-daemon – as if a part of your soul might be dictated by what you do, rather than who you are – but in the first part of The Book of Dust, Pullman seems determined to get under the skin of his own creations, controversy be damned. Most prominent is the shrieking hyena daemon of a paedophile, who is beaten by his own human, and who chews on the stump of his own amputated limb, screeching with pleasure as he does so. Masochism and sado-masochism, explored in one stomach-churning pairing. This, by the way, isn’t your typical young adult novel.
It’s not all painful explorations of our filthy animal psyche. Some of the most beautiful moments of the novel come from baby Lyra, who enters the novel aged six months, nothing more than a chuckling child. In Lyra we get to explore the notion of baby daemons, with Pantalaimon taking the form of a tiny chick, nuzzle up under her chin, then transforming into a tiger cub, when Lyra is riled.
We know from earlier novels that a restlessly shape-shifting daemon is a sign of an intelligent child, and it’s a stirring look into the developing mind of the young adult we have come to know so well: “Lyra’s little face crumpled into an expression of grief and terror, and she reached round for her daemon, nearly twisting herself out of the nun’s arms. Asta was ahead of her; she took the chick in her mouth, and flew up to place him on the baby’s chest, at which point he turned into a miniature tiger cub and hissed and bared his teeth at everyone. All the baby’s dismay vanished at once, and she lay in Sister Fenella’s arms, looking around with a lordly complacency.”
In this book, daemons touch each other with greater frequency, exploring an aspect to their existence that was only touched upon in the earlier books. We get to know them better, and how they balance out their human counterparts. These lingering, indulgent looks are at least as interesting as the plot, which is as rife with politics and religions as we have come to expect, with the looming presence of the Church in evidence at every turn. Beware the CDD.
There’s an unsurprising joy when characters we know from His Dark Materials stride back into the plot, 10 years younger and happily unwitting of the fates we know to await them. Farder Coram plays an important role, as does Lord Asriel, each lent new facets by this earlier entrance in their lives. Coram (and his cat, whom I think we can agree is one of the best and most enviable daemons of the series) is a vital man, engaging in physical altercations, while Asriel has all of the swagger and less of the certainty of later volumes, as he struggles to ensure the safety of his little daughter. There are also plenty of new and interesting faces, most interesting of which is the scholar Hannah Relf (undoubtedly the Mary Malone of this series and her own world), but the plot of the novel is such that we don’t get much more than an introduction to them, a touch of conflict and a hint of their importance to come.
Malcolm might be the central character of the book, but he’s joined in his exploits by a female heroine in the kind of pairing we know well: the girl feisty and dangerous, the boy calm and sensible and contemplative. Alice, the kitchen girl at The Trout, is introduced as not much of nothing, spiky and unfamiliar, but quickly develops into nurse and companion and fighter and conspirator. And while Malcolm defends Lyra with all the zeal of Jacob protecting Renesmee (sorry), it’s Alice who takes the sensible steps that come from looking after the well-being of a baby: clothing, sterilising, washing, feeding. She’s also subjected to some of the nastiest and darkest parts of the plot, including a scene in a churchyard that I could have done without. Criticising Pullman doesn’t come easily to me, but I think it is safe to say that we still have obstacles to overcome when an author capable of world-building as comprehensive as Pullman’s still resorts to rape as a plot device.
Pullman is still being packaged as young adult literature, but even though the hero of the novel is yet to hit puberty, this is a book with considerable sexual undertone. A scene, set in darkness, in which a nun plays fast and loose with her holy vows, is studded with sound and sensation, less allusion than depiction, right up until climax. And Malcolm, though distinctly still childish in many ways, spends rather a lot of his time on Thames eying up the legs and waist of his female companion, who subsequently becomes reduced to a package of belligerence and sexuality. Where in The Amber Spyglass Lyra and Will’s awakening was more biblical than erotic, all bright eyes and heightened feelings, La Belle Sauvage is rather more sweaty and simple and physical. You can sense Pullman behind the pages, asking you to be offended, as the pre-teen palpably begins his journey into puberty. Go on, he says. You were fine with it when I cut off that boy’s fingers. Get your back up about this.
His attention to the reader’s discomfort isn’t restricted to sexual scenes. You sense that Pullman really wants to pull back the hood of his fantastical world in these new volumes, and he does it without shirking. Malcolm is frequently badly injured, not the kind of scratches and bruises you might naturally expect, but slashed about the face, in serious physical pain, a child weathering trauma he ought to be protected from. One fight in particular (participants un-named for the sake of a spoiler) includes bullets and claws and the beating, and beating, and beating of an already-broken leg: it’s Lee Scorseby on the mountain, pierced by bullets, pressed tightly against Hester, only this time you can taste the blood, and see flesh sliced clean through to bone. And ever-present Lyra is not only adorable and intelligent and squealy, but beset by rashes, and sodden with diarrhea, and constantly exuding fluids in confined spaces. This might be a world rich with magic, but it’s also undeniably, disgusting, deliberately human.
When I saw Pullman speak, he was asked by a (audibly trembling) pre-teen what his favourite myth was, and he happily responded at length with an Egyptian tale involving matricide and incest. He’s not afraid to make us squirm. I expect it. And this, for all its fantastical nature, is a book for our times: a book where children are hurt and where women are raped and where, for all the triumphs of small heroes, the haunting, all-encompassing power of the establishment reigns supreme. I get it. We’re all living it. His Dark Materials provided an escape from it. La Belle Sauvage throws us right back in.
It’s not as complex as The Amber Spyglass, and resembles instead Northern Lights, a return to a simpler story structure. La Belle Sauvage is also the first book of three, so perhaps this is deliberate, encouraging the reader to be borne along by the narrative, rather than plumb the depths – and the simplicity doesn’t take away from what is a gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, tear-jerking adventure novel.
If you’re already a Dark Materials denizen, then I say unhesitatingly that this book, for all its darkness, is just about perfect. The world we left so many years ago remains in Pullman’s brilliant brain untarnished, the real merging with the fantasy so seamlessly that when a predator turns out to be a witch, and a river we know well from modern maps plunges our heroic team suddenly into a timeless Narnian underworld, we ride along easily, delightedly. The only sadness comes in surfacing to a reality devoid of magic, with no animal-formed companion. Comfort to that comes from the fact that Pullman is seemingly equally as addicted to his own world as we are, and that we will be transported at least twice more into his multitudinous universe. Myself, and my daemon (hopefully an eagle, more probably a pigeon) will be waiting.
La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books, $35) is available at Unity Books .
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.