Monday 14 October 2019

The Secret Commonwealth: Philip Pullman's new novel treads into more grown-up, uncomfortable territory

Phillip Pullman’s second follow-up to ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy radically departs from the children’s bookshelves into more grown-up and uncomfortable territory, writes Emer O’Hanlon

Emotional rift: The Secret Commonwealth follows Lyra, seen here with her daemon Pantalaimon in the forthcoming BBC series His Dark Materials, as a young woman
Emotional rift: The Secret Commonwealth follows Lyra, seen here with her daemon Pantalaimon in the forthcoming BBC series His Dark Materials, as a young woman
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
Steampunk world: Philip Pullman

Emer O’Hanlon

With the BBC/ HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials coming out next month, it really feels like the perfect time to revisit Philip Pullman's alternative, slightly steampunk, version of our world, and in The Secret Commonwealth, the latest book in the series, we are treated to the return of Lyra Silvertongue, the protagonist of the previous series.

The Secret Commonwealth is the second instalment of 'The Book of Dust', a companion series to 'His Dark Materials'. Here, we've moved forward 20 years - the events of 'His Dark Materials' have been and gone, and Lyra (now a student at Oxford) is trying to get on with her life, but finds herself witness to a murder and once again an object of interest to the Magesterium (this world's version of the Papacy).

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The plot is fast-moving and pacy, frequently moving to different exotic locations with colourful characters in each, all of which is great fun to read. The central cast of characters (though they are dispersed) travel from Oxford to Syria, moving through Wittenberg, Prague, Constantinople, Smyrna and others while they do so. 'The Secret Commonwealth' of the title refers to the world of the imaginary and supernatural, all those things which cannot be explained by logic, a world from which Lyra has tried to distance herself but to which it seems she must return and try to understand.

In Pullman's world, humans have daemons, a part of the soul which lives outside their body in animal form. Lyra can separate from her daemon Pantalaimon (they can be in different places at different times), a factor which seems to cause an emotional rift between the two. Pantalaimon is cruel to Lyra, berating her for no longer being as imaginative as she was as a child, and contemptuous of her for falling under the spell of two books which extol logic and rationality over everything else. Because Pantalaimon is part of her soul, the implication here is that Lyra is deeply unhappy.

Daemons and their humans seem set to be the thematic centre of The Book of Dust, particularly where those relationships are more complicated and toxic than we have previously seen. The Secret Commonwealth introduces us to several characters whose relationship with their daemon is troubled in some way. Pullman has made several references to the grown-up tone of this new series, even going so far as to state that 'The Book of Dust' is not for children, but rather for adults who read 'His Dark Materials' as children. The Secret Commonwealth, although it is packed with plot and set-pieces, is also a book where much of the drama revolves around Lyra's fractured relationship with Pantalaimon. As a note inside the front cover reminds us, "the problems and concerns of adult people are not necessarily the same as the ones they had when young".

There is, however, a lot in this new series to make readers of any age uncomfortable. One is the developing relationship between Lyra and Malcolm. We met Malcolm as a boy in the previous novel, La Belle Sauvage, when he rescued Lyra as a baby. Now in his early thirties, he's a scholar at Oxford as well as working for the secret service agency Oakley Street. He has also had feelings for Lyra since he taught her history when she was 16 (he describes bending over her shoulder in their lessons and catching a scent "not of shampoo but of warm young girl"). He hasn't voiced these feelings to her yet, but several other characters assure him that it's all right because Lyra isn't a child anymore. Then there is a group of soldiers who violently sexually assault Lyra, and stopped just before it turns to actual gang rape.

Pullman's repeated adage is that both Malcolm and Lyra are 'both adults' now, as though this is a get-out-jail-free card for any inappropriate or disturbing behaviour. Sadly, it just means that the novel fits into a wider disturbing pattern of sexual assault being used to signal to readers that a) a character has grown up, b) the situation is dark or edgy, or c) both. Just like the part where Lyra meets an old princess in Smyrna whose daemon ran away because he was in love with an actress, or the assassination of the Patriarch in Constantinople, the attempted rape felt like another set-piece in the story, something included simply to add a bit of colour. It was unnecessarily upsetting and violating, especially given that the last volume, La Belle Sauvage, included the rape of the teenage heroine Alice.

The increased sexual violence in this series made me feel very uncomfortable, especially because it seems to be used to add colour or danger rather than to be taken more seriously.

There is a lot in The Secret Commonwealth to enjoy and to digest afterwards - I'm still not sure what it all means - but it just seems a shame that Pullman has fallen into the lazy trap of resorting to sexual violence to illustrate that his new series is for grown-ups.

Fiction, Penguin, hardback, 704 pages, €24.99

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