A review of “The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman

This is the second part of the trilogy “The Book Of Dust”, following the original trilogy of “His Dark Materials”. This novel is a sequel to the first three, set some 10 years after them and therefore some 20 years after “La Belle Sauvage” which was the first part of “The Book Of Dust”. The whole of the narrative is set in the same universe as “La Belle Sauvage” which, in the words of “Northern Lights”, is like our own universe “but different in many ways”. 

We already knew from the first trilogy that there were people (witches) and places (the world of the dead) when humans and their daemons could be separated, but the shocking revelation of this novel is that Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue (now a 20 year old Oxford University student) and her pine-marten daemon Pantalaimon are not just separated but estranged, so that they are apart both physically and temperamentally. Even more troubling, we learn that there is trouble in the Far East with men from the mountains (aka The Brotherhood of This Holy Purpose) attacking both a research institute and rose growers because apparently a type of rose oil has some special characteristics in some way connected with the powerful instrument the alethiometer and the strange phenomenon of Dust.

This means that much of the narrative is a constant switching between journeys on the way out to this Far East by Lyra herself, her separated daemaon Pan, and the resouceful Malcolm Polstead (who as a boy rescued Lyra in “La Belle Sauvage” and is now an Oxford scholar). At the same time, they are being tracked by a part of the Magisterium known as the Consistorial Court of Discipline which has an althiometer and someone who can read it – as can Lyra – with the new method (Olivier Bonneville, son the the man who tried to kidnap Lyra some 20 years earlier).

Meanwhile what is the secret commonwealth of the title? We are told little, but advised that it is a “world of half-seen things and half-heard whispers” including “fairies, spirits, hauntings, things of the night”. And we learn no more about Dust itself. As Lyra asks herself: “And Dust? Where did that come in? Was it a metaphor? Was it part of the secret commonwealth?” We are told that” “We need to imagine as well as measure”.

This immensely readable work of some 800 pages finishes with nothing resolved, so that the reader can barely wait for the third and final element in “The Book Of Dust” when hopefully all our questions will be answered.


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