instagram: the younger son

For those of us who grew up reading Philip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials, the release of the first book of a new trilogy, The Book of Dust – the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, serves as a prequel – was a highly exciting prospect. When it comes to action, Pullman does not disappoint. Through the story of how the infant Lyra winds up in Jordan College, he provides a captivating and often terrifying account of how the protagonist Malcolm and Alice, the female lead, rescue Lyra from a flood and attempt to return her to Lord Asriel. It is hard to believe that Pullman has the ability to frighten you as much at the age of twenty as he did when you were ten – but he does. As Malcolm and Alice are pursued by a mutilated scientist and his feral daemon, I found myself genuinely terrified, wanting to put down the beautiful hardback, and close the black cover speckled with gold dust.

But La Belle Sauvage also manages to greatly entertain. The high point of Pullman’s comedic efforts comes when a boy in Malcolm’s school repeatedly draws over the ‘V’ in Sauvage with an ‘S’. That Malcolm quietly paints over and corrects the graffiti three times, before deciding to push the culprit into the river, is one of the first things we learn about the beautifully crafted character, encapsulating his precociousness, but ensuring the reader remains aware of Malcolm’s young age. Alice’s character is also exquisitely constructed, and, while Pullman has ensured she is a formidable female lead, the desperate insecurities embedded within any teenage girl will be painfully obvious to anyone above the age of sixteen. However, we also see the return of our old favourites, most spectacularly, Lord Asriel; Pullman’s depiction of him carrying the baby Lyra in the moonlight, whispering to her and showing her the stars, is truly heart-breaking for any fan of the trilogy. 

“It is hard to believe that Pullman has the ability to frighten you as much at the age of twenty as he did when you were ten – but he does”

Yet, while Pullman has created and built upon a wonderful range of characters, the plot is lacking, as is any major insight into the great mysteries of His Dark Materials. The book seems to promise a major scientific discovery, revolving around dust, but the closest we come is finding out how Lyra is left with an alethiometer. Perhaps this is because Pullman focuses so much on developing the world, drastically altered by a flood halfway through the novel. This allows Pullman to introduce a strange element of something akin to magical realism.

These surreal elements do not operate in the context of the novel in the same way as daemons or ice bears, who were developed extensively, but in a fashion that seems to clash somewhat with the previously fluid descriptions of Lyra’s world. For instance, there is a particular scene in which Malcolm and Alice, having paddled through the flood for days, find themselves under a waterfall, in a place where people are without bad memories, which can be seen trapped, just over a wall. The people in this place cannot see or feel the presence of the children, who then encounter a river god, whose presence does not seem to startle them overtly. Indeed, the whole flood has an intensely surreal nature, and seems to jar somewhat with Pullman’s usual incorporation of magical elements into his writing. However, much of this criticism is negated by the fact that the characters themselves often pick up on how bizarre the occurrences of the book are, adding another layer of complexity to Pullman’s twist on his beloved world.  

The book ends with a stanza from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, culminating in the line “may she speede and fairely finish her intent”, which the reader may, in turn, direct towards Pullman, as we eagerly await the next addition to this new trilogy


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