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

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand – we’re back

Apologies for the longish break; I’ve had a longer-than-usual digital detox this Christmas, involving being off Facebook, email and WordPress as well as eschewing my usual daily Guardian crossword.  My laptop has been smouldering with the TV, Netflix and radio programmes I’ve been plonking myself in front of (in front of which I have been plonking myself) but I haven’t only been ‘consuming’ these ‘products’ (I shall come back to my loathing of those terms in a moment) – I have been reading.  And reading.  And reading some more.  Yes, for Christmas I received a copy of ‘The Book of Dust’ by Phillip Pullman.  At 525 pages it weighs in at several kilos and needs the arms of a Hindu god in order to both hold and read it (actually I have read longer books, though not usually in one volume – War and Peace comes to mind, as well as does In Search of Lost Time.  I have a vivid memory of struggling with something that had more than 1000 pages, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. *

Aaanyway, the Book of Dust – absolutely brilliant; so good I had to read it twice and sadly I did so at such a rate that before the week was out, I’d finished.  ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy; I have no idea when the second will be out or what it will be called (the Book of Dust Jacket, perhaps?)

Other than that Christmas presents centred around food and drink; things which are actually products and which I did actually consume.  I have a rabid dislike of these words being applied inappropriately to things which are not products (TV, films, shows, etc) and if anyone ever dares to suggest that The Book of Dust is a product which I have consumed, I shall beat them around the ears with all 525 pages of it.

Well, that’s it for today.  I daresay I shall have more thoughts in the days to come…

Happy New Year

* I think it may have been ‘A Suitable Boy’.

Kirk out

The Book of Dust

To listen or not to listen?  That was my dilemma at the weekend (yes, that same weekend that was packed with non-violence and non-nuclear weapons) when the BBC broadcast in its entirety Philip Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, another three volumes collectively entitled The Book of Dust.  I was so torn: on the one hand I really wanted to read the text first; on the other hand it might be Christmas before I could get my hands on a copy and even then, that particular item on my Christmas list might not materialise.  Add to that the inducement of Simon Russell Beale’s hypnotic voice – and reader, I caved.

I was glad of my caving: it made the space between nuclear weapons and Casualty (not long usually but in this case about four hours) – enchanting.  I forgot I was in the kitchen making bread; instead I was at an inn on the riverside in Lyra’s Oxford where Lyra, a baby, is being looked after by some nuns.  But others are taking an unnatural interest in this baby…

I shall not post spoilers because as I said before, when a book is so new it’s unfair.  But here’s the link to the programme:

I might even listen again – again.

Kirk out




If I Told You That I’d Have To Kill You

Had a rather disturbed night; woke up at 3 am with a terrible headache which eventually went away but kept me tossing and groaning (fnarr, fnarr) for at least an hour.  It’s the kind of headache which is horrible when you have it but which leaves you feeling washed clean when it passes.

Yesterday was a very chilled day, spent mostly in the garden reading “His Dark Materials’ – apparently Phillip Pullman has been working on a sequel called ‘The Book of Dust’  for a very long time now.

‘I wonder if it’s a reference to Borges’ Book of Sand?’ I said.

‘Oo!’ said Mark excitedly.  ‘It could be!’

It wasn’t that exciting really; but Dust is a central concept in “His Dark Materials’ and is a sort of cross between the force of splitting the atom and sexual awareness.  In these books the Church – very strongly Catholic – is a force for evil and tries to suppress the knowledge of this Dust.  They are terrific books and, just as you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the Narnia books, you don’t have to be an atheist to like these.

Mark got a book out of the library and for a joke covered it with newspaper and put a label on it which said ‘If I told you that I’d have to kill you.’  Turns out the book was written by a patient of his and he didn’t want to break confidentiality.  No, I can’t tell you who it was because I’m afraid if I told you that…

Actually managed to pin Daniel down and read something to him yesterday – this hardly ever happens as he is very resistant to new material; he will read Harry Potter or graphic novels but not much else.  I read him a scene where two boys wind up a third boy until the third boy snaps and then the third gets blamed for it.  The second boy doesn’t tell on his friend because that’s their code.  It’s interesting and Daniel really liked it, so that’s good.  Today they will be doing Maths and Science and I shall be trying to work out what the hell to write.

Kirk out