I’m a great Philip Pullman fan so when word of his new series The Book of Dust was first announced, I was excited. La Belle Sauvage is volume one in the series and tells the story of eleven-year old Malcolm who lives beside the River Thames at The Trout pub at Godstow, near Oxford. One day, a baby arrives at the priory on the other side of the river. Called Lyra, mystery surrounds the child, her parentage, and why she is cared for by the nuns.
This of course is Lyra Belacqua, so familiar and beloved of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage is the story of Malcolm’s fascination with the baby Lyra, his relationship with scholar Hannah Relf and his suspicions about a mysterious stranger who visits The Trout. Everyone dislikes this man, despite his ready smiles and chat, because of his daemon, a three-legged hyena. Common with the first book of every series, there is a certain amount of scene setting, the laying-down of foundations for the forthcoming books. Pullman takes time and care to develop the character of Malcolm, the love he has for his canoe La Belle Sauvage, his relationships with his parents, the nuns, and Alice who works in the kitchen. Every reader of His Dark Materials knows the story of the fight between Lyra’s parents and how she was hidden in a cupboard with a gyptian boatwoman. La Belle Sauvage starts after this, when Lyra is placed in the nunnery for her safety. Lurking threat is there on every page – a light mist at first, developing into a heavy presence which will not go away – as Pullman constructs a world in which research into Dust is in its early stages; a resistance group, Oakley Street, is formed to fight The Magisterium; and the League of St Alexander radicalises schoolchildren to inform on unbelievers.
I became very fond of Malcolm. Pullman has a way of writing child characters who stand at the edge of things; they are not the most popular, the high achievers or the butterflies; but they have potential, as all children do. Pullman creates thoughtful character arcs for his child characters so we see them change and grow, facing difficulties, making mistakes, learning and maturing. In Malcolm, more than with Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials, I was conscious of Pullman’s background as a teacher. I was cheering for Malcolm, for his ingenuity, his bravery, his kind heart, his sense of fairness and justice.
If you are a novelist and haven’t read Pullman because he ‘writes for children’, you are missing out. He creates characters you care about, he expertly drip-feeds mysterious information and lays a factual base which seems irrelevant at first reading but will be revealed as essential at moments of crisis, he manages the ebbs and flows of tension, and creates a mystical world that is believable. Every fact included has a significance. He is a writer of tremendous detail, patience and care.
Just read him.
Read more about Philip Pullman’s books here.
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