Book Review

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

forget the infamously sleazy page-and-a-half and enjoy!

It is November the 26th and – if you’re following the news in Canada (which you’re probably not, I have basically as many regular readers in Germany as I do here, the country where I’ve “lived” for almost two years lol haha I don’t have any friends here lol like I literally don’t have any friends, I’m not being self-effacing, I literally have no friends here which, as you can imagine, basically means that I’m much healthier than I used to be because friends are just people to enable getting wasted, right? Actually, I suppose there’s probably a genuine and important conversation for me to have here with myself on this topic, a complete re-evaluation of what I think friendship is for others compared to what I think friendship is for myself. It’s a classic scott manley hadley scrape, all told) then you’ll know that T Town, the Big TO, Tkaronto, Toronto, Tronno, Terronno, whatever, is back in lockdown, baby. This time, I haven’t been laid off (yet?), though, so a lot of the stress and boredom (tho also the promise of free time to try and likely fail to be productive in a meaningful (i.e. non-lucrative) way) hasn’t hit me as aggressively.

I have a few more days off than usual this week, tho, during which I’ve been watching lots of film ‘n’ TV (highlights: I watched the phenomenal 2009 film The White Ribbon, and I’ve been catching up on the later seasons of Preacher that I didn’t watch when they were current: loadsa fun) but most importantly I read the massive, latest, Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth, the second part of The Book of Dust, a sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials, a book I – like many of you, I’m sure – adore.

Unlike La Belle Sauvage, the 2017 first part of this new trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth is set after the events of the earlier narrative, and tbh it feels less like the second part of a trilogy than it does the fifth (or seventh or eighth or ninth, if you count some or any of the novellas and short stories Pullman has published also featuring these worlds and characters) book from within a multi-volume series of books.

The Secret Commonwealth is not a sequel to La Belle Sauvage in the way that The Subtle Knife was a sequel to Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass), in part because it presumes the reader has read all of those other books first

For example, the biggest “plot twist” in the novel (and the moment when I realised I was having the most fun I’d had in months) was a connection that would have made little to no sense to someone who had not read His Dark Materials.

Throughout The Secret Commonwealth, there are references to the events and the characters in those other novels in a manner that indulges and affirms the reader’s nostalgia, for the events and the characters are thought of nostalgically by the 20yo-ish Lyra, too, whose “best” times are certainly behind her.

The Secret Commonwealth is not about a naive search for adventure and it contains no one with a pure, purposeful, intent. In His Dark Materials, God dies (oops, sorry, spoiler alert), but once God is dead and the connections between the multiverse are severed forever (except for the one aperture allowing freedom from eternity to the souls of the dead, remember?), the stakes are just fundamentally lower, right? Lyra – like the reader, most likely – enters The Secret Commonwealth as an adult, in contrast to His Dark Materials when they were both (the reader and Lyra) a child.

Pullman knows this and plays with this, and aside from the tone deaf “love interest” storyline which was rightly pilloried at the time of initial (i.e. hardback, eww) release (a 30-something professor perving over Lyra, his student and someone he has known since she was a baby and played a controlling, if previously benevolent, influence on her life and safety (this is grooming)) and – hopefully – will never be mentioned again in the next book (or, if it is, it will need to be alongside a depiction of the character’s deep shame at the realisation of his utter impropriety and scumminess, hopefully without needing to burden Lyra with the awful knowledge that someone in loco parentis wanted to fuck her, which – again – is grooming), this is a book about memory and memorialising. It is about growing apart from our friends and our family, it is about the slow gradual realisation that life is boring and that the malevolent people and institutions with money, power and influence care only about maintaining their status, regardless of the repercussions for the rest of the world.

Though the literal use of a refugee crisis could be argued to be a little on the nose in a fantasy novel, its depiction here is sufficiently non-rose-tinted to justify and harder evoke the reality Pullman creates.

Tho, yes, there is magic and witches and daemons and monsters and fairies in “Lyra’s world” (does it have a name anywhere in the series? If so, it is only mentioned as an aside as I haven’t internalised it), it is also fully realised. Its institutions are not the same as ours and they do not operate in identical ways (e.g. the Magisterium and the places where it asserts control are very different to those of the Catholic Church; likewise the sinister corporation known to be working to undermine geopolitical stability for short term economic gain is one diversified potash company, rather than lots and lots and lots of diversified energy, tech, banking and mining (etc.) corporations), but they do operate, and they do feel real.

///

Unlike His Dark Materials, when Lyra was right in the middle of a huge inter-universe conspiracy almost from the off, here she is vaguely aware that something big is happening, but she is outside it, for the most part. It is only in the final few pages when Lyra becomes connected through more than personalised animosity (the “plot twist” I mentioned above) to the “bigger picture narrative”, and though there was a part of me that felt relief when this finally happened, there was also a part that felt disappointed. In The Secret Commonwealth, it is Lyra’s personal journey that matters most: it is not about her “trying to save the world”, it is about her trying to save herself, and these are vastly different things.

Because by the end of The Secret Commonwealth Lyra has saved neither, and none of the narrative threads are satisfactorily wrapped up: this is part of a story, not its whole. Which is fine, I suppose, but it’s nice to read or watch an episode of a series of something and have some kind of narrative closure. One of several story strands may end and set up others, but The Secret Commonwealth doesn’t do that. This isn’t an accident, of course, Pullman is far too good at what he does to accidentally provide an unsatisfying ending. It is instead, I feel, part of the context of the book and its engagement with real, adult, life. 

Narratives don’t really have endings, do they?

One person’s death isn’t death for the whole world, even the death of all humanity isn’t the end of time and existence (except in that Chinese sci-fi trilogy Obama loved and my lover told me the ending of as she read it back before I’d fallen (i.e. begun regularly reading genre fiction)).

In real life, there is no happy ending, there is no point where we reach a pleasant stasis that lasts forever. We never stop ageing, we never stop drowning in nostalgia, we never stop bitterly regretting the tiniest mistakes we’d be best to forget. 

Though, of course, the best time of Lyra’s life was a lot more exciting than the best time of any of ours, we all too reach a point where interesting things stop happening. For a lot of us, myself included, 2020 has been a year where that happened, and the challenge – once the vaccine has been rolled out globally and we can “be” again – is to recapture the momentum that life requires to remain purposeful and fun.

Some people don’t stop interesting themselves in the world until their nineties, their eighties, while other people are fucking ghosts from childhood to death. A lot of people are ghosts. I have felt like a ghost this year, and it’s likely I’ll feel like a ghost for a good chunk of the next one, too

I don’t want to feel like a ghost and I know – as terrifying as the knowledge is – that the way for me to feel alive again is to create human connections in real life. How the fuck do I do that, I wonder, without just slipping back into regular casual drug use and all the damaging effects of that?

I don’t know. But unless I try, I know I’ll never learn.

I do not want to be a ghost, haunting my blog, haunting my lover, haunting my dog. I want to be alive. I do not know how to get there. But knowing I want it, I suppose, is step fucking one.

Blah blah blah buy my new book, people who’ve read it seem to like it. Or hated it so much they’ve decided to never speak to me again 🤪

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