Nearly a decade has passed since we last saw Lyra Silvertongue. Still at Oxford (now a student and no longer a pixie-like child getting into trouble and haunting the corridors), Lyra’s life has become a blur of books and study. In addition to changing the way she sees the world or expresses her opinions, years of study have made her a more timid version of her younger self. Her burning curiosity seems to have been stoppered by paper. In contrast, Pan yearns to rekindle their imagination; their lust for exploration and discovery. While the two remain at an awkward impasse, the tension reaches breaking point, until Pan – frustrated and worried – leaves Lyra to find a solution. In Lyra’s search to recover him, she is once again thrown into danger and excitement. Travelling across the world in search of her soul mate, Lyra begins to learn about her past, and the importance of believing in the secret commonwealth – the world of all things fantastic and magical.
Pullman is a master story weaver – many delicate threads from a myriad minor tales merge into a single, glorious tapestry of adventure. His latest offering is also by far the most mature, featuring (for the first time) an entirely adult cast, and with dark overtones and internal struggles that are reflective of adulthood – noticeable from the use of profanity, to the tense situations that are explored and prodded. The Secret Commonwealth demands a mature reader who is not afraid to face the shadowy places in society. Reading this book is like diving into the minds and experiences of Lyra and Pan, who have problems far more pressing yet far less fantastic than their childhood ever featured. The void left by Pullman’s previous offerings of faeries, angels, talking bears, and witches is now filled with the grizzly reality of adulthood – cynicism, politics, existential crises and assaults on the body and mind.
Despite the prolific danger and darkness throughout the pages, there remains an element of hope and beauty characteristic of Pullman’s style. The Secret Commonwealth contains the possibility of forgiveness of sins, the potential for a love story, and small acts of kindness that serve to renew faith in (literary) humanity. In short, this novel covers all the bases, and is an emotional and intellectual triumph.
My only complaint about this book is the ending – it came too soon, and I am already anxious at the idea of a long wait before the next volume. Cliffhanger? Really, Mr Pullman; you’re a tease.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is published by David Fickling Books, and is available in South Africa from Penguin Random House South Africa.