The Book of Dust, Volume I: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Reviewed by Helen Parry

First of all, is it as good as everyone says it is? Yes, it really is. The plot is compelling and perfectly paced, the characters have depth and behave convincingly, the world is richly imagined and wonderful. If you loved the His Dark Materials trilogy, you will love this. If you are new to Pullman’s work, it doesn’t matter, you will love this. (The only piece of information you perhaps may need is that in this world everyone has a daemon, a sort of spirit animal or bird, and that children’s daemons can shape-shift but during puberty they become fixed.)

La Belle Sauvage is set in ‘Lyra’s world’ – an alternative world to ours – about ten years before Northern Lights and at a moment when secular and Church scientists are engaged in a race to understand the quantum properties of Dust, and the Church is seeking to extend its power in Brytain. Lyra is a vulnerable young baby, entrusted to the care of the nuns of the Priory of St Rosamund near Oxford since her mother does not want her and her father is not considered fit to bring her up. Although her whereabouts are supposed to be kept secret, they are soon common knowledge in The Trout, the pub run by eleven-year-old Malcolm’s parents. It is Malcolm, a bright, curious and practical child, who is the hero of this story. Malcolm hangs around a carpenter’s workshop eager to help and is always in and out of the priory kitchen; when he first meets Lyra he feels a profound bond with her. This bond is to prove important when a witch’s prophesy makes Lyra suddenly of great interest to her mother and the religious authorities.

Malcolm is further drawn into conflict with the Church when he intercepts the drop in a dead letter box just before the agent who dropped it is seized. Here he and his daemon Astra have just picked the drop up:

At first sight it was an acorn, but it was oddly heavy, and when he looked more closely he saw that it was carved out of a piece of tight-grained wood. Two pieces, in fact: one for the cup, whose surface was carved into an exact replica of the rough overlapping scales of a real one and stained very lightly with green: and one for the nut, which was polished and waxed a perfect glossy light brown. It was beautiful, and Asta was right: it had to be the thing the man had lost.

‘Let’s catch him before he gets across the bridge,’ he said, and put his foot down into the canoe, but Asta said, ‘Wait. Look.’

She’d become an owl, which she always did when she wanted to see something clearly. Her flat face was looking down the canal, and as Malcolm followed her gaze he saw the man reach the middle of the footbridge, and hesitate, because another man had stepped up from the other side, a stocky man dressed in black with a light-stepping vixen daemon, and Malcolm and Asta could see that the second man was going to stop the raincoat man, and the raincoat man was afraid.

This ‘acorn’ proves to be a message from one part of the underground resistance to another and soon Malcolm is ‘doing his bit’ as well as trying to protect Lyra. His long-standing dislike of Alice, an prickly older girl who works in The Trout, begins to soften. Meanwhile, everyone dismisses the gyptians’ warning of an impending and catastrophic flood…

The book’s title comes from Malcolm’s canoe, La Belle Sauvage, so beloved that she becomes a sort of part of him. Like Ratty from The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm enjoys messing about in boats, and this stands him in good stead for the second part of the novel, during which Brytain is submerged in a flood of biblical proportions and Malcolm, Lyra and Alice take to La Belle Sauvage to elude their pursuers: the agents of the Consistorial Court of Discipline and Gerard Bonneville. Bonneville is a killer and paedophile who plans to kidnap Lyra; that he is also profoundly mentally disturbed is revealed in the disjunction between him (smooth and friendly) and his daemon (a vicious hyena), also in his repellent predilection for mutilating his own daemon. He is a terrifying villain.

This second part of the book is for me really outstanding. The children’s journey through the transformed landscape is strange and dreamlike, nightmarish in places, and ultimately transforms them too. The rules by which they normally live have dissolved. Whether they are still even in the same reality sometimes seems uncertain as they pass, like Odysseus and his men, among mythological beings and relics of antediluvian life. Here Pullman draws not just on Homer (and of course his own imagination) but also on pastoral literature like Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in which characters also wander in landscape that is at once familiarly British and entirely alien. The end of Book I of The Faerie Queene concludes La Belle Sauvage: ‘Now strike your sailes yee jolly Mariners’, rest awhile and repair your vessel,

[…] And then againe abroad
On the long voyage whereto she is bent:
Well may she speede and fairely finish her intent.

It is a perfect nautically flavoured ending which anticipates the other books in the series. It reiterates the importance in La Belle Sauvage of craft, of making things and taking care of them. It’s also interesting because Book I of The Faerie Queene concerns holiness and the choice between ‘true’ and ‘false’ religion. Pullman is also concerned with these matters in La Belle Sauvage, as in so much of his work. The Church has become repressive, ‘false’, and characters increasingly have to choose between it and those who oppose it. Contrasts are set up, not all of them comfortable or straightforward. The nuns of the Priory of St Rosamund, in whose kitchen Malcolm helps Sister Fenella with her cooking, are shown to be kind, honest and brave – but they evade asking themselves hard questions about the Church to which they belong. The Priory of the Sisters of Holy Obedience, which abuses the children in their care, is after all part of the same faith. The poisonous League of St Alexander incites children to spy on their parents and teachers and report them; but Oakley Street, the resistance, also uses Malcolm to watch and acquire information and indeed puts him at serious risk. For some on both sides, the end justifies the means; for many, including Malcolm, hard deeds must be done and peace must somehow be made with them.

Helen Parry’s boating career was short and disastrous; were she aboard La Belle Sauvage the children wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. She blogs from dry land at a gallimaufry.

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume I: La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling Books in association with Penguin, 2017). 978-0385604413, 546pp., hardback.

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