Book Review

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

read good book, do bad exercise

I just did exercise for the first time since I cycled up that mountain in August and I had to frogmarch myself home then have a panic attack on the bedroom floor. I didn’t like the flashback – floor-based hyperventilating – to my previous life.

I’m writing this in mid-October, my life settled into the pattern that it will be in for the rest of the calendar year: teaching for a few hours online around lunchtime, plus a little bit extra from time to time some mornings. I read and I write and I edit myself and – today – edited a review written by someone else of my OWN book, Bad Boy Poet, which will be published here on TriumphoftheNow.com on the book’s official release day, November 8th 2018.

To date, I have swapped every last possession I want to – and easily can – for money, and I’m in a stable place here, financially: I have bought all the airplane tickets I need to attend various “irritatingly unmissable” social events (e.g. my own book launch, one of my oldest friends’ wedding etc.), and have enough money put aside and/or due me to make rent and food, so anything else I can accrue is a bonus. God. I’m not functioning like people aged thirty are meant to aspire to function.

I just got back from a weekend away visiting my family, which always has a weighty emotional toll. This time it was compounded by the arrival of the first copies of my first book, Bad Boy Poet, which my sister read. A lot of my poetry collection is about me and my feelings (and any that isn’t clearly about either is intentionally implying a failure to engage with my own emotions), and as such has graphic sexual detail, in-depth looks at my own suicidal depression, and also very frank discussion of my emotional response to things that, for clear reasons, have a weighty emotional impact on my sister. As I wrote for the Metro a few weeks ago, me and my sister didn’t grow up in an environment with much emotional literacy and I was worried what her response to my writing would be. I was incredibly anxious that she would read it and respond with disgust at my emotional frankness or the shameless (or “unashamed”) way in which I discuss the way other people – family members included – have impacted upon my life. Thankfully, she didn’t. Though she looked genuinely ill when reading the triptych of poems about cunnilingus, she also laughed a lot, cried a lot, and looked at me shaking her head like I was insane in all the right places. It soothed me, somewhat, in my anxiety about this book release, and I suppose it also made me more aware of something I hadn’t quite considered before: who did I write this book for, other than me? No one, and I think that’s why I’m proud of it, happy with it, pleased with it: it worked as a moving text for the person in the world who had most cause to resist being moved by it. I’m happy with it, so – I suppose – there’s no one else whose opinion of it might matter, on a personal level, who hasn’t at least understood what I was trying to do.

Sigh. It’s just trying to persuade strangers to read Bad Boy Poet now, and hoping that strangers who have the clout to get other strangers to read books like Bad Boy Poet encourage other people to read Bad Boy Poet. Ooooh, my book. I’m anxious about many things, but I’m not certain I’m anxious how people will read it, just if people will read it. I don’t think I could have better achieved what I wanted to achieve, but whether or not people enjoy it is in their hands, rather than mine…

///

I haven’t really recovered from this early evening panic attack yet. I should eat something, I haven’t really eaten. I can’t eat, my stomach feels fucked.

I didn’t exercise as much as I’d hoped to and now my legs hurt and I feel so ashamed for having a panic attack afterwards. I haven’t had a drink for three days and I desperately desperately desperately want one. Some days on, some days off isn’t enough. I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve and I’m content in my “outsider” life, but I’m not content with the “insider” moments of it and and and and and

///

To be kind to myself, I got my sister to buy me La Belle Sauvage as a belated 30th birthday present when she dropped me off at the airport on Sunday afternoon. I read all 600 pages by early afternoon on Tuesday, despite working a lot, sleeping a lot and walking my dog a lot in that interim. Why? Because Volume One of Philip Pullman’s follow-up trilogy to his magnificent His Dark Materials is absolutely bloody brilliant.

///

It’s now a few days later and I’m not feeling much better or more balanced. A very low alcohol intake this week (all dry bar one evening), and also the publication of my two highest profile online articles, one at Metro, one at Berfrois. I don’t know what I need to do to feel more of a sense of purpose, more of a sense of of of of of-

///

Reading La Belle Sauvage made me feel a lot of confused feelings. Because, yes, it’s fucking brilliant. And it’s brilliant in the way that books I used to love to read when I was young and naive and optimistic were brilliant. It is comforting, in that it is a return to a fictional world that I have spent lots of time in before, and it is gently more adult than His Dark Materials in that there are whispers of off-page (and nearly on-page) sexual violence, a couple of f-bombs (i.e. the word “fucking”) and some serious violence. There is also discussion of fictional science, of faux reality, and also ventures into magical, mystical, parts of Lyra’s (the lead protagonist of His Dark Materials, but if you don’t know that, why are you reading this?) world, including far more of a physical presence of old, pagan, gods. As His Dark Materials built, Pullman introduced fantastical elements from across international myth and legend, with angels and demons and the underworld and god and giants and witches and talking bears etc, and in La Belle Sauvage he adds far more references to Celtic and “green man” style myths.

The narrative focuses on the various people – sinister agencies as well as sinister individuals – who are seeking the baby Lyra, who has been recently removed from her father, Lord Asriel’s, custody by the least sinister of all the shadowy organisations Pullman here includes. The world-building focuses far more on a wider society, and though there are witches and gyptians (familiar “outsider” groups from His Dark Materials), the action remains within this other-worldly England, rather than fleeing to the North, the Northern Lights. This does mean that the book lacks the elements of surprise and swooping, built, expansion that Pullman’s earlier trilogy included, but to see elements of that world widened is a pleasure, at least it is for people familiar with the other text.

The adventure is well-paced and exciting, the action scenes are gripping, the characters are warmly evoked when “good” and terrifying when they are “evil” (there is a Hitler Youth-style network of child-spies, as well as a troubled villain who beats his own dæmon(!)). Of course, it suffers the same fate of all prequels in that a certain amount of tension is lost due to the reader knowing where certain characters will end up. We know that Lyra and her estranged parents (Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter) will survive and continue to gain power without redemption until much later, we know that Lyra will end up in an Oxford college, and we know that Lyra’s society will not collapse following the catastrophic flood that this book’s heroes ride on in La Belle Sauvage‘s eponymous canoe. Knowing which characters survive, though, doesn’t remove tension from the text, as any reader of the other texts will remember that neither of the protagonists here (eleven-year-old Malcolm and his fifteen-year-old friend, Alice) are mentioned in His Dark Materials. Do Alice and Malcolm survive? We do not know, and they are in much peril throughout.

La Belle Sauvage made me sad because it reminded me why I always wanted to write when I was a child – I wanted to make people feel like this book made me feel – elevated, excited, emotional, and part of something bigger than myself. I definitely didn’t do that with any of the unpublished novels I wrote in my twenties, but maybe I will manage it with Bad Boy Poet, my debut poetry collection, available from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles, the publisher itself or at a massively inflated price below.

La Belle Sauvage reminded me why I loved reading novels, what I always used to seek: an escape. I don’t really have a life I want or need to escape from any more, which is why I usually read texts that are real, honest, human rather than magic. I’m a bit sad but, I suppose, that’s just me, innit?

A real treat, if you’re a His Dark Materials fan. Which – I imagine – you probably are.

Joyful.


 

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Special Edition of Bad Boy Poet

Bad Boy Poet is the debut poetry collection from whingy hipster blogger Scott Manley Hadley. It is a series of “confessional-style” poems describing the life of a confused and conflicted youngish man as he tries to work out who he is, following a mental health crisis and the subsequent breakdown of a relationship. Also there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs. Purchase from TriumphoftheNow.com to receive a special signed edition that includes a personal dedication, a handwritten exclusive poem AND a high resolution full-frontal nude photograph (postcard size).

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