The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Ray Jana)
With the release of La Belle Sauvage, readers were finally able to return to the universe of Philip Pullman‘s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy after a seventeen year wait. The story was a prequel to the original trilogy (though Pullman described the new series not as a sequel, but an ‘equel.’) Being only a baby, it was not Lyra who took centre stage in that novel, but a young boy called Malcolm Polstead, who used his boat La Belle Sauvage to rescue Lyra from a terrible flood and an even more terrible man in pursuit.
Now in the latest addition to the series, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), Lyra returns in full force. She is a twenty-year-old enrolled at St Sophia’s, a women’s college at Oxford. There are many wry nods to her childhood at Jordan College (at one point Lyra piously tells the Master of Jordan College that she’d never be allowed in the Retiring Room, where, of course, the first tale famously began), which will no doubt please fans of the original series. But the young adult Lyra we meet is very different to the girl we knew.
Pullman is clearly writing a self-consciously adult book. The Lyra we meet swears, drinks, has dalliances with Gyptian boys. There are glimmers of the fearless and imaginative child we knew, but this Lyra is also more melancholy and introspective than she was before. Her once infallible relationship with her daemon Pantalaimon is strained, and a question which was never posed to the childhood readers of the previous trilogy is asked: what happens when a person does not like their daemon? And, perhaps more interestingly, what kind of internal conflict does this symbolise?
With this new conflicted Lyra, Pullman explores the ramifications of her first adventure and what it cost her. The books we read in childhood are so often ended with every plot thread neatly tied up and the insinuation of a happily ever after, but the trauma that characters go through and the inevitable fallout thereafter are seldom explored. Seeing Lyra deal with the consequences of losing Will, of trying to rationalise the fantastical adventures of her childhood, make for truly compelling reading. Meanwhile, Pantalaimon’s struggle to reconcile his animosity toward Lyra and his disconnectedness from her, and his inability to understand the changes she’s undergoing and their increasing estrangement, lead him to undertake an impressive task in the hope that he can return Lyra to her old self — the one who loved him. And Malcom Postead, now possessing a doctorate and teaching at Jordan College while acting as an agent of the clandestine Oakley Street organization, is struggling with new conflicts between his duties to the college and his duties to his country … and the complicated feelings between himself and Lyra.
Pullman expands his universe to incorporate timely issues of the modern day: he touches on the refugee crisis and pharmaceutical companies trying to make gains at an expense; the fraught political situation in Lyra’s world is not so far removed from our own. Many themes will resonate with the readership that would have read HIS DARK MATERIALS as children, who have grown up into a world fraught with these issues. Pullman’s portrayal of an entire world on the brink, of refugees risking literally everything for the faint promise of a better life elsewhere, of a precious Central Asian resource in decline and the chaos its loss would cause, is written with feeling and care, and its parallels to our own world are impossible to ignore.
We were both in agreement that some of the episodic elements of Pullman’s tale felt a little incongruous. The varying episodes of HIS DARK MATERIALS fitted together perfectly to contribute to the story as a whole, whereas the many elements of The Secret Commonwealth sometimes feel a little unfinished. Perhaps this is the nature of setting up intrigue for storylines that will concluded in the final instalment, and whilst we both agreed that we had complete faith in Pullman’s mastery of storytelling, we wondered whether this would be the case with a new author. This felt especially relevant, since we are discussing a novel which prominently features a young woman struggling between her childhood self’s blind belief in the extraordinary and her newly-adult self’s need for rationalisation and hard facts; as younger readers, we each implicitly trusted Pullman to tell the story of HIS DARK MATERIALS in the way he felt best and to whatever end he desired, while our adult selves now question and debate the merits of his authorial choices. (The irony was not lost upon either of us.) Moreover, the book felt overcrowded with ideas and people, with a surprising lack of nuance in the characterizations of the villainous characters introduced in this volume, though we’re each hopeful that the various diverging storylines and plots will be resolved satisfactorily in the eventual third instalment. But we felt that these characters, in particular, needed more examination in this novel in order for us to become fully invested in their efforts.
On the one hand, The Secret Commonwealth is a book self-consciously written for an adult audience, and we had several in-depth discussions about Pullman’s successes and failures in this venture. There are elements of murder, sex, espionage, and more at play, the difference being that they’re handled more overtly in THE BOOK OF DUST and, in particular, The Secret Commonwealth than the often-oblique ways those same themes were handled in the previous trilogy, and being more explicit doesn’t necessarily mean more successful storytelling. We noticed quite a few odd passages involving negative commentary on a character’s appearance in direct connection with their sexuality, and objected to the way Malcolm’s feelings toward Lyra were glossed over rather than given a proper examination in the same way that she devotes to exploring her own complicated feelings regarding him. The episodic nature of the tale resulted in, unfortunately, a distinct lack of consequences for seemingly important events, such as serious injuries that occur in one chapter and are never mentioned again (with one shocking exception near the end of the novel) or supposedly sympathetic characters who commit murder before casually joining a friend for dinner. It often seemed as though this book could have been trimmed down a little, or perhaps expanded into two separate novels, in order to either focus the reader’s attention onto Pullman’s core ideas or give them more room to be fully explored.
On the other hand, we enjoyed quite a lot about our return to Lyra’s world and to Lyra herself. Pullman’s voices for Lyra and Pantalaimon are as exactly right as they were when she was a mere slip of a girl; melancholy and world-weary though the pair might be, as strange and frightening as they’ve become to themselves, they were immediately recognizable to us as readers, and Lyra’s struggle to define herself and decide what kind of person she wants to be is instantly compelling. Pullman’s examination of what happens after extraordinary childhood adventures is thought-provoking and intelligent, and the chapters focusing on Lyra and Pan are unflinchingly honest. At The Secret Commonwealth‘s conclusion, Pullman springs a lot of new information on the reader, all of which is immediately tantalising and hooked us for the final BOOK OF DUST instalment, whenever it may arrive.
~Ray McKenzie & Jana Nyman
This is an angrier than usual review from me, and most of that anger stems from disappointment.
Disappointment wasn’t my first reaction. That was utter confusion, starting at about page 85. Like Ray and Jana, at first I was delighted to be back with Lyra and Pan, but I soon realized that I had no idea who this young woman, whose name is Lyra, was. On page 85, confronted with one of many obvious villains who treats Lyra badly, I watched her as she reacted with confusion, meekness and apology; nor did she seem to see the obvious, once she left that scene. What had happened to the smart Lyra?
As I trundled deeper into the story, or stories, since two or three stories seem to twine together here, the more confused and disappointed I got.
It would be difficult-to-impossible to pinpoint the causes of my confusion and, yes, betrayal, without discussing spoilers, so I am not even going to try. I’ll hide most spoilers, but if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to know about some key plot points, skip this review entirely.
That said, here are a few things that didn’t work for me:
A storyline that drives a good bit of the plot of The Secret Commonwealth involved an oil distilled from a rare rose grown somewhere in the mid-East. The rose oil helps people see Dust. The magisterium wants to control it. This drives some global upheavals and plenty of the spy-action that takes up about half the book.
Here’s my problem; I didn’t care. I spent quite a lot of energy trying to care about rose oil, but it didn’t work. The story that was emotionally compelling, that concerned Pan and Lyra, the story that I wanted to follow, kept getting subordinated to rose oil.
The Past is Prologue, Until It Isn’t:
In HIS DARK MATERIALS, and even to some extent in La Belle Sauvage, Pullman introduced and deepened this world’s concept of humans and daemons. Certainly we knew that some people, like the witches, have different relationships with their daemons than others, and in the first book of THE BOOK OF DUST series Pullman showed us that people can have unpleasant relationships with their daemons. Certain things, though, were fundamental and established, until Mr. Pullman retconned them in this book. These retroactive changes lead to a startling plot point that emerges on page 607 of a 633-page book, with no foreshadowing.
Here’s a spoiler that you can highlight if you want to read it: There is a thriving daemon trafficking business because some people’s daemons leave them. If you read this, I’ll understand if you need to read it again. And if you’re sure, after that second read, that I’ve got it wrong and I just don’t understand, I understand that too. But I haven’t got it wrong.
It’s believable that Lyra, who is still young and quite sheltered inspire of her amazing adventures, would not know about these circumstances. The book is filled with adults and even elders, though, who must know about it, because they are fighting the Magisterium and this is part of the Magisterium’s concerted, multi-pronged effort to train people to distrust and invalidate their daemons as well as their own minds and senses. Malcolm, Hannah or Glenys must be aware of this, and they are all aware of Lyra’s particular predicament, yet no one mentions it at all, or if they did I certainly missed it.
Part of the purpose of this plot twist is to give Pullman a symbolic way to talk about spirituality and addiction, just as the two popular novels that Lyra has read and admires symbolize misinformation and social media. Symbolism is great. It just needs to function as more than symbolism in a book; it needs to be planted and foreshadowed. Because the vital plot point comes up in literally the last 30 pages of the book, obviously this isn’t the first place that symbolism is expected to stand in for an actual story. It’s just the most egregious.
The Secret Commonwealth is very long, with two-dimensional villains and scenes that go on too long or lack enough emotional import. In a specific case, the scene between Lyra and alchemist Johannes Agrippa, the emotional tone is baffling. In Prague, Lyra has been approached to help a man who has been separated from his daemon. The daemon is being held prisoner by Agrippa. Lyra finds Agrippa and brings the man and his daemon together. Before her eyes, Agrippa does a terrible thing, one which is a horror in its own right, and which should bring back powerful memories of terror and betrayal for Lyra. And Lyra is horrified, for about a minute, until Agrippa mentions Dust. Then Lyra is full of curiosity, no longer bothered by the atrocity she’s just witnessed. It’s possible this is a symptom of Lyra’s deeper problem, but honestly, I couldn’t tell. The scene just read wrong on all levels.
For a very long book that traverses the globe, Pullman spends very little time on the vivid descriptions I loved in, for instance, The Golden Compass. Agrippa’s workshop is lovingly described, but Lyra globe-trots through Prague, Constantinople, and is heading to Aleppo near the end of the book and not a single city comes to life for me, no matter whose point of view we share.
Malcolm and Lyra:
I’ve hidden this whole section due to possible spoilers. Highlight the invisible text to view them.
Apparently Lyra and Malcolm Polstead are destined to become a couple by the end of this trilogy. (Yes, I did that on purpose.) There are several problems with this, only one of which is the age gap (ten years). It’s the easiest-resolved, actually: as they age, this gap would become less important until very late in life; one could argue that in spite of her youth, Lyra is as experienced in the world as Malcolm because of her earlier adventures. (That’s a weak argument, but someone could make it.) More seriously, for most of this book, Lyra and Malcolm don’t interact. They can’t even write to each other very much because neither knows where the other is, and besides, the Magisterium might intercept the letters. This is hard way to start a relationship. Lyra and Will fell in love over the course of two books, having to learn to trust one another, and it was a love that each of them earned.
The feelings between Lyra and Malcolm aren’t earned. Recognizing the obstacles to a real relationship here, Pullman creates an epic Tajik love poem called Jahan and Rukhsana, in which the title characters act as stand-ins for Malcolm and Lyra. The best, or, well, least-bad thing the poem and Malcolm’s obsession with Lyra do is make us think that Pullman can’t write a romance anymore. The worst thing they do — and this is serious — is reduce Lyra to something to be bestowed as a prize to Malcolm for all his good anti-Magisterium spy work.
Philip Pullman seems to think that the global rise of fascism is a bad thing. You know who else thinks that? Me. He thinks that undermining our critical-thinking abilities and systematically encouraging addictions, many sorts of addictions, are bad too. You know who else does? That would be me, again.
When Pullman takes a sledgehammer to his previous trilogy, though, and yanks free a few of the battered timbers from it to build a soap-box, and then climbs up on it to shout at the readers about those things instead of giving us a meaningful story, I have to draw the line. The power of HIS DARK MATERIALS was in its meaning. It was a meaningful story, with complicated, well-drawn characters dealing with issues that were personal and global. I suspect that The Secret Commonwealth is somehow meant to be Lyra’s Dark Night of the Soul, but her story is shoved offstage by alchemists, Evil Overlord villains and set pieces designed to showcase a political message, so messagey they lack only bunting, a balloon release and a large-screen slogan at the end.
I realize this is an unusually harsh review from me. I’m harsh because a brilliant thinker and powerful storyteller failed at giving me a meaningful, thoughtful story here, and from past experience, I know that he can. Message is not meaning, and lecture is not art. The Secret Commonwealth is like Lyra, missing something vital, and I really feel the loss.