If you have read and enjoyed Philip Pullman’s “His dark materials” trilogy then you surely know that – seventeen years later – his new novel in that epic story, “La belle sauvage”, was published in October.
You have probably already devoured every page of it; in which case, there is no need to read this review.
If the trilogy has not yet been read, the time has come in your life to delve into the new but disturbingly familiar world of “La belle sauvage”.
If you get hooked by it – like the 17.5 million readers who have bought copies of “Northern lights”, “The subtle knife” and “The amber spyglass” in one of the 40 languages in which they have been published – you will be compelled to start reading the earlier trilogy and enjoy a properly happy Christmas.
The central character of “His dark materials” is Lyra, a girl whom prophecies and rumour have announced will be a new Eve, a woman who will liberate society, heralding an age of freedom. Opposing her and everything she stands for is the Magisterium, a crypto-fascist religious organization.
What unfolds across the three novels is a finely wrought and imaginatively rendered series of parallel worlds where the forces of liberation struggle with those of a deeply repressive theological order.
This struggle ends with the destruction of the God-figure that fuels the Magisterium. It became a hugely dramatic moment in the National Theatre’s production of the trilogy – seeing it, I can recall the thrilling realization that, for the first time since the ancient Greeks created the art of theatre, the death of God was being enacted on the stage.
“La belle sauvage”, is a flashback, going back to the time when Lyra has just been born. She is entrusted by her father into the care of a community of nuns. In the vocabulary of movies, such a time shift into the past makes it a prequel but Pullman prefers to call it an ‘equel’.
Given that “La belle sauvage” is the first volume of a new trilogy called “The book of dust” (the second volume has been written but not yet published), this is a reasonable claim for the inaugural novel of a highly ambitious extension to what is already a stunning achievement in fiction.
Compared to these novels, the Harry Potter books are indeed juvenile, entirely lacking both the contemporary relevance of “His dark materials” and the dark side of childhood that “La belle sauvage” explores.
Many literary influences have been traced in Pullman’s work – the Bible and Milton especially – but Homer’s “Odyssey” is surely a template for “La belle sauvage” tale of a long and perilous journey where experience is a hard-fought affair.
What remains unique, though, is the way each individual has a daemon, a non-human life form from which they cannot be separated. Your daemon is who you choose to be, an existential expression of the kind of person you decide to become. Reading Philip Pullman makes the reader ask and wonder what their own daemon is like.
“La belle sauvage” by Philip Pullman is published by Random House.