I hesitated somewhat before reading La Belle Sauvage, the first instalment of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust. I hesitated because of His Dark Materials. I know that the critical consensus on His Dark Materials is genius – indefatigable genius! – that does not admit the barest squeak of a pip of possible disagreement; I found it to be good (Northern Lights), good (Subtle Knife), painful trudge (Amber Spyglass) – and it’s been greatly reassuring to me in the years since that trilogy ended to hear other readers echo similar experiences to my own. Amber Spyglass is like Scorcese’s Gangs of New York – you can’t deny that Daniel Day-Lewis is great in it, but his performance overpowers everything else. Amber Spyglass is the Daniel Day-Lewis of His Dark Materials, and I exited the trilogy feeling exhausted, browbeaten and – yes – glad to be done with it all.
La Belle Sauvage is a prequel to His Dark Materials. Our narrator is 11 year old Malcolm Polstead, a boy “with an inquisitive, kindly disposition, a stocky build and ginger hair”. When he isn’t at school, he is busy helping out in his mum and dad’s pub, The Trout, stationed “three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford”, and just across the river from “the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business”. Malcolm is also a regular face at the priory helping out with odd jobs whenever he gets the chance. Malcolm was happiest, we learn, “on his own playing with his daemon Asta in their canoe, which was called” – you guessed it – “La Bella Sauvage.” It is while he and his daemon are at their happiest that they see a man loitering by the water, having lost something, who is himself disturbed and seemingly carted away by two other mysterious men. Asta discovers what has been lost (a beautifully carved wooden acorn) and Malcolm unlocks it to reveal a secret message, albeit a secret message pitched wildly beyond Malcolm’s understanding.
Now. Important point. I think there is what you might call ‘a complexity tolerance’ for certain forms – in that, if you find a narrative bloated with exposition or freighted with too many competing voices, it can break a book. La Bella Sauvage flirts with breaking the complexity tolerance in its opening fifth largely as a result of two ostensibly internecine groups – one, the Consistorial Court of Discipline or CCD, which works on the side of the Church and is therefore (in Pullman’s world) bad, and the other, known only as Oakley Street, broadly good (at least so far). Malcolm comes to learn of both, and in doing so is gradually inducted into the outer reaches of thinking about Dust (thought by the CCD to be the physical evidence of original sin and by others to be the particulate of consciousness). The other level of complication (and a plot point that may have you wondering, early on, whether you should re-read His Dark Materials prior to this) is, of course, Lyra, who is a babe in arms here. All you need to know is that Lyra is the child of Mrs Coulter (very bad) and Lord Asriel (good, more or less), and that she is placed in the protection of the nuns of the priory for her own good health. Malcolm takes an interest in Lyra and when the forces of evil descend is ready to protect her.
The book really comes into its own with the arrival of a terrible flood. Any doubts you may have about it are swept away. Malcolm, and Alice, a young woman who works in his father’s pub, take up Lyra aboard La Belle Sauvage and head out to sea, their aim being to reach London and Lord Asriel. The kind of travails you’d expect with three people aboard a narrow boat (sleep, food, changing nappies, warming milk) are complicated by the pursuit of a man called Bonneville. Bonneville is a ferocious creation. Younger readers beware. He and his daemon, a three-legged hyena, are the stuff of nightmares. If you read this book and are not shocked, repeatedly, by what Bonneville gets up to… well, you’re made of sterner stuff than me. The best parts of La Belle Sauvage are effectively Night of the Preacher redux. There are other strands to La Belle Sauvage (not least the attempts by agents of Oakley Street to help them) but Bonneville’s seemingly reasonless pursuit of Malcolm, Alice and Lyra will have you turning the pages at pace. The seeming reasonlessness is worth picking up on because there are definitely plot points during La Bella Sauvage where the reader is asked to suspend the need for answers – any seasoned Pullman reader will know to wait for some of the events in this book to make more sense further down the trilogy (that’s why so many people re-read him, he’s a writer who repays that level of engagement) – so, for example, at one point they travel into a world where they see people who don’t see them – are they in Heaven or purgatory or some other place? The answer is (possibly) to be determined later. There are also (as you’d expect from Pullman, who reworked elements of Milton’s Paradise Lost / Regained in His Dark Materials) allusions aplenty, particularly to Spenser’s Faerie Queen but also to a mighty melange of other children’s books (ranging from Alan Garner’s Weird Stone of Brisingamen to CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
But you don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s fiction to get an almighty kick out of this. It’s captivating, enthralling, thrilling, knock your socks off fare. More than all of this, though, it’s surprising, restorative. Whatever bad taste was left in my mouth by the resolution of His Dark Materials is utterly gone. I’m a new zealot and I cannot wait for book 2 of The Book of Dust which is, apparently, intriguingly, set after the end of His Dark Materials.
Any Cop?: We heartily recommend La Belle Sauvage particularly to any readers who were put off by Amber Spyglass. Just bear in mind, if you plan to take younger children through this, that there are some sections of the book that are, at best, PG-13 and there is also a fair but of cussing towards the climax. Just so you know.