The Secret Ingredient is….

…I’ll give you a clue – it begins with ‘t’ and ends in ‘me’.

Warning – contains spoilers

I bought The Secret Commonwealth on Tuesday and finished it yesterday, which should tell you something about its unputdownableness (unputdownability?) And yet…

Let me say at once that it’s a stonking book, and if it weren’t for the high standards Pullman has set himself in previous novels I would hardly have any fault to find with it. But this novel, compelling though it is, bears the hallmarks of something rushed, perhaps to meet a publishing deadline. In ‘La Belle Sauvage’ we saw Lyra as a baby being rescued and taken to Jordan College by eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his friend Alice. In this second book in the trilogy Lyra is an adult studying at St Sophia’s but still living in Jordan College. But things are about to change; the Magisterium is on the rise again and Lyra’s friend and ally, the old Master, has died giving way to a much less sympathetic new Master who is not an academic but a businessman. There are five or six interwoven storylines involving Lyra, Malcolm (now a college professor and in love with Lyra) Lyra’s daemon Pan who separates from her and goes on his own journey, and several other characters including the members of the secret society known as Oakley Street. The gyptians come back into the story and Lyra learns about the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ of the title; the hidden world of sprites and will-o’the-wykses which can help or hinder humans depending in their intent.

Yet, vividly imagined though it all is, the novel isn’t quite integrated. The stories don’t entirely mesh together and when Lyra arrives at the final stage of her journey across the desert to find Pan, the journey itself feels rushed and there’s no satisfying conclusion, only a ‘to be continued…’ and a quote from The Faerie Queen.

I also felt it was a bit ‘issue-y’, by which I mean that bits of polemic stood out from the narrative and felt more like lecture than story. The trigger for Lyra and Pan’s ‘divorce’ (and it feels like a marriage gone wrong) is the influence of some books Lyra reads which insist on rationality and the irrelevance of ‘mere imagination’. This is one of Pullman’s central tropes in the series and where, as an atheist, he differs strongly from Richard Dawkins – but here it doesn’t seem quite real. There’s also a digression on liars and bullshitters – liars know the difference between truth and lies, bullshitters don’t care – which seems aimed squarely at Trump (perhaps Johnson hadn’t yet slithered to the top by the time it went to press) and an affecting scene where a boat Lyra travels on collides with a dinghy full of refugees.

I also was left wondering, who is he writing for? The Secret Commonwealth feels much more like an adult (or young adult) book than the others, which are clearly written for children. There’s a leap here in terms of vocabulary and subject matter: a rape only hinted at in ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is openly acknowledged and a scene where Lyra is sexually assaulted on a train is described in detail. Yet despite these shortcomings the novel rattles on and is still well worth reading, which says a great deal for the high standards Pullman has set himself.

I’m going to tell you a story now. There was once a businessman who was always on the move. He was very impatient and whenever he stopped to eat he was in a hurry for his food to be cooked. One day he ended up in a strange village where he was offered hospitality by a yogi. The yogi took an age to cook the food and the businessman kept asking impatiently how long it was going to be. Finally the food arrived and the businessman was astonished at how good it tasted.What’s your secret?’ he asked.

‘No secret,’ smiled the yogi.

‘Oh, come on!’ insisted the businessman, ‘you must have some special ingredient, some herb or spice or something.’ The yogi leaned forward and looked in his eyes. ‘There was one special ingredient,’ he said.

‘What was it?’ The businessman was already imagining the money he could make from knowing this astonishing recipe. ‘Tell me! What did it take?’

‘It took… Time,’ said the yogi.

And so does writing. As for The Secret Commonwealth, I’d have given it another two years. But then when you consider phenomena such as ‘rapid-release’ publishing, perhaps he was under pressure to produce it sooner. Anyway, go read – and when you have, let me know what you think. Here’s an independent, non-Amazon link.

Kirk out

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