Inside are visas from the Ottoman Empire, the Khanate of Turkestan and the prefecture of Sin Kiang in the Celestial Empire of Cathay, along with a timetable for the steamship S.S. Zenobia, with a date circled for the ship’s docking at Smyrna and the scribbled words Café Antalya, Süleiman Square, 11am. “An appointment!” deduces the young stranger.
There’s more: a luggage tag leading to a rucksack containing top secret information that will unleash an international conspiracy of violence and intrigue … You could be forgiven for believing that you are reading the opening pages of a Tintin adventure, but this is not a tale of an intrepid boy reporter and his faithful dog. It’s a story about a lost young woman, Lyra, and her estranged pine-marten companion (an animal similar to a mink) in a parallel world.
When La Belle Sauvage, the first book in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust, was published in 2017, it was possible to imagine it being shelved in the children’s section of the bookshop alongside its companion series, the hugely successful Northern Lights books loved by adults and children alike. Lyra, the heroine of Northern Lights, was just a baby in La Belle Sauvage, and the story focused on Malcolm Polstead, a boy who endures a traumatic coming-of-age as he takes on the role of Lyra’s protector.
It is not only the frequent use of adult swear words in The Secret Commonwealth that signal we have left the children’s section. The cruelty and injustices of the world Lyra traverses are of a different order to what has come before, rendered at times in a form that feels horribly close to our own fraught present. Refugees drown when their tiny boats break apart, leaving orphans and bereft parents; ostracised ethnic minorities struggle against their own genocide; soldiers rape and brutalise the people they are supposed to protect. And this time, no fearsome talking polar bear or cowboy or beautiful witch shows up to save Lyra as she makes her solitary way through this hellish geography. Not even Malcolm, who has never stopped loving her, can protect her.
The Secret Commonwealth leapfrogs in time from the end of La Belle Sauvage to a point about 10 years after the events of Northern Lights. Pullman seems determined to break the hearts of all his readers, who have longed to know what became of courageous, unstoppable Lyra and her companion Pan (all the people in Lyra’s world have animal counterparts called daemons). Studying at her beloved Oxford, she is lonely, depressed, searching hopelessly for meaning in rational philosophy. In some kind of traumatised reaction to her past she has become what Pan bitterly calls a “rancorous reductive monster of cold logic” and stubbornly rejects the world of “the secret commonwealth”, the realm of fairies, spirits and magic.
The transition into adulthood, celebrated in the previous trilogy as an awakening of intellectual curiosity and sexuality, here simply sucks. “You used to be optimistic,” Pan complains to Lyra. “You used to think that whatever we did would turn out well … Now you’re cautious, you’re anxious … You’re pessimistic.”
All she can find to say in return is “I used to be young.” Meanwhile, the repressive church has consolidated its power, displaying fresh intent to quash all dissent. Lyra is once again hunted by malevolent representatives of religious authority for reasons no one seems to understand.
Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy featured child protagonists locked in a mortal struggle with forces of authority, alongside witches, talking animals and other fantasy tropes, but also spoke in literate, poetic parables about big questions of consciousness and being, religion and politics, power and destiny. His novels set in Lyra’s world have always been uncategorisable, bending and melding genre, in conversation with voices as diverse as John Milton, C.S. Lewis, British folklore, particle physics and theology. They are obsessed with the concept of storytelling as its own kind of irreducible, poetic, vital truth.
Pullman’s mastery as a storyteller remains remarkable, with an unique ability to create a fully realised, enchanting other world. Yet an unsettling sense of incoherence haunts this uneven, wandering narrative, with its many lacunae. What might a reader unfamiliar with the original trilogy make of the creepy Magisterium, their fixation on this stuff called “dust”, the rushed explanations of the delicate instrument of clairvoyance known as the alethiometer?
The Tintin elements of the story — the outlandish caricatures of menacing villains, scholar-spies, eccentric princesses — are hard to get a handle on in a story so manifestly for adults. Even more troubling is this new trilogy’s insistent return to brutal sexual violence as a master trope of suffering imposed on women characters.
There are moments of spellbinding storytelling, such as the inset tale of the death and resurrection of the moon, and the disturbing, fragmented journal of the murdered man. But The Secret Commonwealth is markedly a “middle book”, with many unresolved narrative threads and stubborn mysteries. Lyra was prophesied to be a second Eve, but it remains unclear what this means, what she will find at the end of her painful journey, and what the consequences for her world might be.