The Secret Commonwealth

By Philip Pullman

David Fickling Books/Penguin, £20

Review by Peter Ross

LYRA Belacqua, Lyra Silvertongue, Lyra of the armoured bears and alethiometers and astronomical book sales, is now 20 years old. “I used to be young,” she tells her daemon Pantalaimon. It is a sad sentence because adulthood seems not to suit her. She is melancholy – and unhappy with Pan, which is to say that aspects of her nature are in conflict. Their wounding remarks to one another are a form of self-harm.

In Philip Pullman’s universe, every human has a daemon, a sort of spirit-animal embodying something like their personality, conscience and soul. Pan has the form of a pine marten, which suggests that Lyra is wild, solitary, quick of thought and foot.

That, certainly, was the girl we knew in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Yet a certain heaviness has descended. She feels as though she is dragging around chains. In The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000, Lyra and Pan broke their physical and psychic connection so that she could enter the world of the dead and free her friend Roger. This self-sacrifice was also a betrayal. “The guilt and shame would be in her heart on the day she died,” Lyra reflects now.

Love, in other words, will tear us apart. Still, their ability to be distant from each other physically allows the daemon to witness, late one night, the event on which the plot turns: a murder. This will be a crime story; to begin with.

The Secret Commonwealth is the middle title in the Book of Dust trilogy, the follow-up to 2017’s La Bella Sauvage which was, essentially, Lyra’s origin story. This new novel takes place seven years after the events of The Amber Spyglass, but links back to La Belle Sauvage in that it revisits major characters almost two decades on. Malcolm, the boy hero, is now Dr Polstead, scholar and spy. Alice, the teenage heroine, is … ahem, one must be careful of spoilers.

Although the trauma of separation is at the root of Pan and Lyra’s estrangement, they have also fallen out over the ideas contained within certain books. Lyra, an Oxford student, is attracted by a form of rationalism which her daemon regards as a denial of he and his kind. “Young people don’t believe in the secret commonwealth,” a Fens boatman grumbles, meaning the world of fairies and so on. “They’ve got an explanation for everything and they’re wrong.”

The book’s title is an old flag raised over a new battlefield. The Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns and Fairies was a treatise written in 1691 by Robert Kirk, the Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle, a sort of field guide to the supernatural beliefs of his parishioners. Pullman has stolen the name for his own book in which reason and imagination tussle and tug.

The chief pleasures of this novel are those of recognition. First, there is gratification in seeing familiar characters at later stages in their lives. Secondly, readers of Lyra’s Oxford, a stocking-filler published for Christmas 2003, who puzzled over why a facsimile of a cruise liner brochure had been reproduced among the endpapers, and what was the meaning of the note handwritten on the ship’s timetable – well, they will have their curiosity satisfied. How delicious to recognise that the author has been laying a breadcrumb trail all this time.

Across almost 700 pages, however, The Secret Commonwealth is uneven. It too often reads like John le Carré fan fiction. Where Pullman excels is in set pieces. The strangest and perhaps best is The Furnace-Man, a chapter in which Lyra encounters a piteous, terrible figure who might have stepped from a painting by Pullman’s beloved William Blake. I also detected, in that episode, a sulphurous whiff of the uncanny scene in The Old Curiosity Shop in which Nell, homeless, is given shelter for the night by a man who has an obsessive love for the factory furnace which he has spent his life tending. Pullman has said his own daemon would be a raven, a thieving bird, and one of the delights of reading his work is in noticing which baubles he has brought back to his nest.

This is not a bedtime story. Pullman depicts sexual assault, refugees in peril on the sea, and violent religious fanatics who seem modelled on Islamic State. Also in his sights are the 2+2=5 manipulations of post-truth politics: “ … we should delicately and subtly undermine the idea that truth and facts are possible in the first place,” says the book’s chief villain. “Once the people have become doubtful about the truth of anything, all kinds of things will be open to us.”

Pullman is confronting readers with the horrors of our own world reflected back at us. In The Secret Commonwealth he creates a fearful symmetry.