La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

la belle sauvage

Can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a book as much as I did for this one. I went as far as re-reading His Dark Materials in preparation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype but it’s still a worthy edition to Lyra and Will’s saga.

We’re back in the familiar environs of Lyra’s Oxford and this alternate England is every bit as evocative and exciting as it was in its previous outing. It’s quite apparent how much Pullman must truly relish painting this quixotic version of an early 20th century England with its simple way of life, its vibrant communities, the pervasive sense of social rectitude and the resourceful thrift with which the normal Englanders go about their days.

There are a few reappearances of characters we’ve already met, including Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel and Farder Coram, but our story principally concerns Malcolm Polstead, an 11 year old boy very much in the mould of Lyra. Accompanying Malcolm on his journey is 15 year old Alice, a girl for whom hardness and hurt seem to have been daily companions. Malcolm’s innocence, so redolent of Lyra and Will’s naivety on their epic journey, is tempered by Alice’s bitter world view and her presence adds a greater sense of sadness that you can’t turn away from which His Dark Materials didn’t have.

The plot sees Malcolm and Alice recruited by unconventional means to protect the infant Lyra from her would be abductors during the worst flood in living memory. Luckily for us, Malcolm is the proud owner, and skillful navigator, of a canoe which proves invaluable in spiriting Lyra away while her enemies give pursuit.

The chase is probably a little too drawn out. As well as this it wades too deeply into mystical waters at times for reasons that don’t appear to be immediately apparent or significant. For example, the infant Lyra is stolen by her pursuers at one point and Malcolm and Alice are forced to rescue her from an industrial school-esque institution. I was expecting this to take sometime, much like Lyra’s escape from Bolvangar but Malcolm manages the whole ordeal in a matter of pages. I know La Belle Sauvage is one of a trilogy so unless this institution rears its ugly head again. I struggle to see why Pullman bothered to insert it into the story in the first place.

Pullman is a master craftsman and his prose is effortlessly beautiful but this book just meandered at times for me to be called truly great. An excellent book by anyone’s standards but by Pullman’s, inferior to his earlier masterpiece.

[Editor’s Note: South Dublin Reads has reviewed this book before with another reviewer. Compare and Contrast!]

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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