The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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9 thoughts on “The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

  1. For me the most memorable chapter was when Malcolm’s school was infiltrated by the League. A very disturbing portrait of the origins of fascist coercion. There were also stunning fantasy scenes towards the end. But I think maybe the handling of sexual violence bothered me, and I’ve not quite figured out why.

    • Yes, I think you’re very right with that! The school scenes were some of the best for me as well. I also think you’re very right with the point that the sexual violence was problematic.

  2. They often say that the middle book of a trilogy can be problematic, being neither a middle nor an end. Pullman confounds that as a general observation: The Amber Spyglass is generally regarded as the weakest, least focused of His Darkest Materials, and here in La Belle Sauvage I felt that same diffuseness as both boat and book drifted downriver. Whether his nod towards The Faerie Queene is responsible for that I don’t know but it does make for a somewhat universally confused reception.

    The sexual violence is certainly shocking, and not to be underplayed; in that Pullman was perhaps prescient as post-Weinstein and #MeToo have since exposed what has been swept under the carpet for far too long. That is not to excuse Pullman’s portrayal of such predatory behaviour and the chilling powerlessness and naked fear it occasions, but it does explain his anger at yet another example of amoral abuse of power (the Church for example in HDM and here).

    I do hope that the unevenness shown in this instalment is because of its expository nature and that the next two books reveal where this is all heading.

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