Saturday 6 January 2018

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Pullman’s greatly anticipated return to the world of His Dark Materials hit shelves late last year. The story is set a decade before Northern Lights and focuses on Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent and inquisitive child. He lives and works in his parents’ inn, the Trout, and is friendly with the nuns at Godstow Priory, just across the water. The nuns take in a baby named Lyra under a certain amount of secrecy and Malcolm soon finds himself attached to his young neighbour. His innocent life is shaken up when he sees a stranger lose an acorn and then be confronted by a group of threatening looking men. This leads our young protagonist into a world of intrigue, spies, and alethiometers.

There’s also the problem of Gerard Bonneville, a seemingly friendly man whose three-legged hyena daemon shows his true, dark nature. A scientist and pedophile, he is even witnessed attacking his own daemon, an action that is practically unheard of. When the flood comes and the Priory is badly damaged, Malcolm attempts to take Lyra to safety on his trusty canoe, La Belle Sauvage, with the help of Alice – a churlish employee of the Trout. In their attempt to return Lyra to her father in London they are hounded ruthlessly by Bonneville who wants her for far more sinister purposes. They also have to try to avoid the Consistorial Court of Discipline, but it is Bonneville who is relentless in following them. He becomes an eerie, much-feared figure who the reader will feel great distaste for.

There is a real sense of claustrophobia and distrust in the early parts of the novel with the League of St Alexander giving children power over their elders by reporting them for not toeing the line. As Malcolm comes to understand the complexity of the world around him you feel all the uncertainty with him, never quite sure of whose intentions are honourable. During the flood, although some of the situations occasionally feel a tad far-fetched, the desperation and suffering is vividly written, bringing the struggles that the children face to life. It is all too easy to forget how young they are.

With Pullman’s latest offering you feel you are in safe hands with this experienced and masterful storyteller. Whether you’re a Dark Materials superfan, a general reader, or new to this fictional world, you’re bound to enjoy this thrilling adventure tale with the bigger philosophical and theological preoccupations woven throughout.

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