5/5 stars on Goodreads
|The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman|
The last book I read this year was The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. It’s the second book in The Book of Dust trilogy, a follow-up to his brilliant His Dark Materials series. It’s a massive book with almost 700 pages, the longest book I read this year, but it didn’t feel long.
The events in the book take place twenty years after the first, La Belle Sauvage. Malcom, the eleven year old boy from the first book, is now in his early thirties and an Oxford scholar. In secret, he’s also a member of the Oakley Street spy organisation that works against the authoritarian Church. Lyra, the heroine of the first trilogy, is an adult too, and an Oxford student. She has changed from the curious and headstrong girl to a believer of a new philosophy that states that daemons aren’t real. Naturally, this upsets Pantalaimon, her pine marten daemon, so much so that he takes off to find Lyra’s imagination.
A murder in Oxford sets the events in motion and sends Malcom, Lyra and Pan on quests through Europe towards the Near East where they may find answers to questions about daemons. They each travel separately, Lyra and Pan too, which causes problems for her, as people without daemons are feared and deplored. A larger background plot about dust unfolds slowly, with members of the Church as the bad guys that chase Malcom and Lyra. The book ends just as it reaches the point where we might learn the answers to all the questions.
I liked this book very much. There are several point of view characters and a reader always knows more than the characters. It’s a heavy book with a lot to say; some of it slightly in-your-face commentary about the state of our world, which jars occasionally. Lyra as an adult seems to have caused the author some difficulties, which he solves by mentioning her sex life, periods, and making her live under a constant threat of violence from men.
The most controversial scene takes place towards the end of the book. It’s a fairly gratuitous rape scene. Lyra is forced to share a train compartment with soldiers who decide to rape her. She’s not completely defenceless and she manages to inflict some real damage on her attackers, and she’s saved before any unforgivable damage happens, but the scene feels unnecessary.
Yes, rape is a possibility when a woman travels alone to a country preparing for a war, but there are other forms of violence that would have driven home her vulnerability. Robbery, for example―she carries the expensive aleomether that the Church wants. Religious zealots disgusted by her lack of daemon attacking her would have worked too, and would have been more in line with the overall plot. And they could have been women attacking her. Throughout the book, only men are a threat and women are nurturing and good, which is quite a change, considering that in the first trilogy the greatest enemy was Lyra’s own mother.
The book ends soon thereafter, but Lyra doesn’t behave like a rape survivor for the remainder. She allows men into her hotel room and sets off for a journey through a desert with a man she has only met. That, more than anything, makes the rape scene feel unnecessary. It doesn’t affect the plot in any way. The best I can say about it is that it isn’t written to titillate; it’s about brutality and violence.
Despite the rape scene, I gave the book five stars. There simply is something in the way Pullman unfolds the story that is masterful and satisfying. Seemingly unconnected events all advance the plot and carry the reader inevitably with it. And the build-up in this book promises that the conclusion of the trilogy will be truly epic.