The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

secret commonwealth

I’m not sure if it’s relevant but The Subtle Knife was the shortest of the His Dark Materials trilogy. The Secret Commonwealth is certainly longer than the first installment of the new trilogy;  it’s quite the tome, in fact, and if it were any other writer or any other series, I’d be hoping the third and final book is considerably shorter. I suppose my musings on the novel’s length are for the reason that the book, good as it was, felt too long. They say the middle part of any trilogy is always the hardest to get right and maybe Pullman felt that challenge keenly here.

It’s a large and at times meandering story, delving into fable as often as it cuts you with realism. The novel crosses continents and viewpoints, with the narrative being shared principally between Lyra and Pan, although a strong supporting cast also features. Our familiar heroes separate to solve a mysterious secret but must contend with a dangerous new enemy as they do so.

Fans of His Dark Materials will enjoy revisiting Lyra, now an Oxford undergraduate, to observe her navigate the world around her as a young woman. However, the sheen of novelty is worn thin by the deeply troubling treatment that is meted out to her for the crime of being female. As an attractive young woman, Lyra is, and the novel makes no attempt to avoid it, very conscious of the intrusive male gaze throughout and there’s even one disturbing scene that, although I wont spoil for you, is quite difficult to read, especially for those who, having read and loved His Dark Material, feel a paternal instinct towards Lyra. Whether or not Pullman was acutely conscious of the MeToo movement while writing, or would this have always featured is difficult to say, but in Pullman’s hand, the book is very strong in its feminist values, if a little inappropriate for U16s.

The novel touches on on topics in the zeitgeist too with clear parallels with the current migrant crisis in evidence, as Lyra encounters refugees from the Middle-East and Levant fleeing to Europe from their war wracked region; conflicts fomented, naturally, by interfering Western powers. Mental health is a topic that is given plenty of exploration also. Lyra and Pan’s physical distance is equaled emotionally and spiritually and in the course of Lyra’s journey she meets similarly afflicted people. In Pullman’s Northern Lights, it took a kind of atomic-particle guillotine to sever the connection between a human and their daemon, and so, the reader is left to ponder what great upheaval could possibly cause a person and their daemon to willingly detach from one another.

Many of the characters of La Belle Sauvage also reappear as Malcolm Polstead, now one of Oakley Street’s most capable agents, takes the fight to the Magisterium. On a note of interest for fans of Pullman’s work, a curious insight is offered to the reader to explain the diverse and virulent structure of the Magisterium that dominates the political and social institutions of the world. John Calvin, the reader is told, died as the incumbent Pope; an office, of course, he never rose to in real life. Upon his death, the Church split into the many headed hydra that inhabits Lyra’s world, with each institution operating autonomously, jockeying for position in a constant and savage contest for power. Not altogether crucial to the plot but a very interesting tit-bit nonetheless.

Too long, too sprawling but still magical, beautifully written and deeply affecting.

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

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