Friday, October 27, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 19th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 464 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Malcolm Polstead is pretty content with his life. With his faithful daemon Asta at his side he helps his parents run their establishment, the Trout Inn, located in Godstow. The best part about the Trout is all the academics that frequent the pub due to it's proximity to Oxford. Malcolm is a bright lad and his school leaves something to be desired but he's able to fill in the gaps in his education through the conversations that swirl through the pub. He also benefits greatly from the Abbey located directly across the Thames. The nuns look on Malcolm as one of their greatest friends, whether he's helping Sister Fenella in the kitchen or Mr. Taphouse in the shed. All his free time is spent in his little canoe, La Belle Sauvage, traveling on the Thames. It's a life of little worries, with the dishwasher Alice Parslow being the only throne in his side. Though little does Malcolm know that everything is about to change when three distinguished gentlemen arrive at the Trout one night and question him about the Abbey. Soon there are rumors swirling that the nuns are caring for a baby of great importance. Malcolm quickly learns the truth, they are indeed protecting a young baby girl, Lyra Belacqua, and it's a matter of an instant for him to realize that he will protect her with his own life if it came to that. Being at Lyra's side means Malcolm has unwittingly become a focal point for various organizations and their needs, both nefarious and otherwise. The one he chooses to ally himself with, due to a horrific incident he witnessed, is called Oakley Street and his contact is Hannah Relf, a member of the research group studying the alethiometer. Malcolm's a valuable asset and his information, particularly concerning a disturbed man with a three legged hyena daemon, are very important. Yet soon a cataclysmic event will prove Malcolm's love for Lyra and his true worth to Oakley Street, if only he can outrun the laughs of that hyena.

La Belle Sauvage is a rare book in that not only did it meet my expectations it exceeded them. Reading this book has actually made me more excited for the rest of the series not less. I literally don't know how I'm going to handle the wait until The Secret Commonwealth which is hopefully coming out next year, not next week like I wish it was. Yes, it's not perfect, the cataclysmic and biblical flood goes on too long, the ending is abrupt with a lot of new concepts introduced but not yet fully explored, but these are pacing issues similar to His Dark Materials in that Pullman views the three volumes of each series as just one of three sections of a single book. In simple parlance, a book in three parts. A book in three parts that have their endings randomly decided by the length and by the arc of each section. Yet almost all problems that I have can be glossed over by the wonder that is Malcolm Polstead. There are many characters in the world I love, but there are few that I feel an instant connection with and have every fiber in my being devoted to protecting them. One such character in recent years was Neville Longbottom. Neville is just so vulnerable and sweet and had such a tragic backstory that if anything had happened to him I would have rioted. Malcolm is similar but in an entirely different way. He's gregarious and competent and smart and just loves the world and I want to shelter him from the harsh realities that are to come, much like Hannah Relf with regard to Oakley Street, but at the same time I know he can take the world on. If I had a kid I would love for him to be like Malcolm, he's just the sweetest most wonderful kid ever. I see him as a miniature Nick Frost, all 4' 6" of him just sauntering into the pub and going up to the elderly patrons and slipping into their conversations like he'd been doing it for fifty years and he knows all about what it's like to have lumbago. There's so much I want and hope for him, but even if it all comes to nought he'd run the best pub in the world if that's what he fell back on.

Malcolm's goodness and humanity is balanced by a rather odious organization that forms at his school. Through the Consistorial Court of Discipline, an arm of the church, a league is formed, The League of St. Alexander. This league's job in all schools is to inform on people in honor of St. Alexander who turned in his own parents for worshiping false idols. Teachers, parents, friends, neighbors, anyone is in danger from this group if these children decide they aren't loyal to the church. The children who join quickly become the power structure in Malcolm's school with the headmaster being ousted for trying to dismiss the league. Many teachers soon vanish as they are supposedly being "reeducated" in the ways of the church. Every lesson must start with a prayer, or else that teacher faces removal. Malcolm's school becomes a haven for fear and hate and while I'm sure Pullman had been planning this book for years and taking things from the historical context of the church one can't help feel that it's oddly prescient. They are like little Hitler Youths where the zealotry brings out the worst in everyone. Living in a country where hate, fear, racism, bigotry, and sexism, are all alive and well and spouted by those in charge, to have a league indoctrinating this in those who will one day lead? It makes me shudder. Really, think how terrifying this is, children can be vicious and merciless and they can make an accusation against anyone and have adults believe them and applaud them. Their bad behaviour is being rewarded! The scores they can settle all because they have righteousness on their side? The fear and hate they can spew because they have a little enamel badge on their lapels!?! I want to hope that this isn't the future we're building here, but more and more it looks like it is.

Though these terrifying thoughts, though they need to be processed and dwelt on, just added another level to the book while not taking away my enjoyment. What truly gripped my attention was all the spycraft. THIS is what I expected Tinker, Tailer, Solider, Spy to be! La Belle Sauvage is like Oxford academia meets Bletchley Park and I loved every single second of it. And, in fact, so many academicians were involved in the world wars and the cold war that this makes total sense. Yet while things like Oakley Street passing messages in acorns made me wildly giddy, the true success of the spycraft here is that we focus on two characters that are new to the game. There's the higher ups, the lords and ladies, but it's the lowly reader of the alethiometer Hannah Relf and her naivete and her relationship with Malcolm as a sort of den mother that make me just love this story. Firstly there's just cute little things like Hannah hating crosswords, which figured prominently in the placing of code-breakers at Bletchley Park and were favorites of the famous Oxford resident, Inspector Morse. Or the books Malcolm borrows from Hannah, and for some reason here Agatha Christie being in all universes makes sense whereas I've had issues with things from our world being in Lyra's world previously. Perhaps because it felt more grounded in the world of Oxford than the land of the dead... But the book once again goes to the bigger issues: how do you know you're on the right side? Hannah has been working for years for Oakley Street without really questioning who they were or why she was doing it, only that she trusted the man who approached her. When she brings Malcolm in it's then she starts to go, "hang on a minute, am I working for the good guys?" In this world basically anyone working against the church is good because the church wants to propagate ignorance and indoctrination, so Hannah is on the right side. But just the fact that she questions them, much like Malcolm questioned The League of St. Alexander shows that they are on the side of knowledge. They do not blindly follow.

With having such weighty issues as false faith, hate culture, and subversion, I find it odd that once again Pullman sidesteps some fairly important sexual issues. Again, I don't know if this is because of his audience or what, but I feel like obliquely talking about it is doing more harm than good. The disturbed man with the three legged hyena daemon, Bonneville, believes he is Lyra's father. He had also just finished serving time for a sexual offense in which Mrs. Coulter was the witness for the prosecution. The only way that he could believe he's Lyra's father, despite Malcolm's insistence on Bonneville being deluded, is if Bonneville had been intimate with Mrs. Coulter. Either they were in a consensual relationship, much like Bonneville and one of the younger nuns, and Mrs. Coulter decided to punish him for some reason and get him sent off to jail which I wouldn't put past her, or, and this is my belief, he raped Mrs. Coulter and assumed the pregnancy was from the rape and not from Lord Asriel's relationship with her. Whatever way this actually played out I think skirting the issue does damage to the story in not explicitly saying that rape is bad. This could have been, and how I hate myself for using this phrase, a teaching movement. Rape is bad. Period. Later in the book when Alice and Malcolm are attacked by Bonneville at the mausoleum it is hinted at by the blood on her legs that Alice is Bonneville's latest victim. But again, it's not spelled out. There seems to be this barrier that Pullman has set up that IF he were to state these things baldly then childhood innocence would be lost. But hinting at it is far worse. State it. Remember it. Then let the story continue with this knowledge firmly in place. But then again, Pullman casually drops using Malcolm as bait for a pedophile for the benefit of Oakley Street and the only one who objects to that is Hannah. So maybe there's some issues that Pullman needs to address in himself with regards to what is and isn't acceptable even in a fictional universe.

As I previously stated there was a lot thrown at us readers in the last chapters of the book, lots of supernatural fairy tale aspects with otherworldly beings that are not in the least handled. Of course, seeing as the gyptians refer to these phenomena as "The Secret Commonwealth" and that's the title of the second book I'm not too concerned about getting my answers eventually... but there is ONE thing that I wondered throughout La Belle Sauvage and have been wondering ever since I first read The Golden Compass and hope that the answer is near at hand. Lord Asriel has some "otherworldly gifts" as his manservant told Lyra on Svalbard. Whatever he needs, be it beautiful glass windows or a child to sacrifice, he sets his mind on it and it appears. Now Malcolm has a strange phenomenon happen to him, an aura in his eye, which he mentions to Hannah. Of course, he adorably mishears it and calls it his aurora. But the first time it happens is the night he meets Lord Asriel and helps him to see Lyra at the Abbey and then gives him his canoe. Later it happens again when he looks at the card Lord Asriel left for Malcolm in the canoe and it sways Malcolm to take Lyra to her father than just back to the nuns. Again it happens when Alice and him have lost Lyra and they see the place she is being kept high on a hill. Could Asriel be guiding Malcolm to help him protect Lyra and reunite them and this aurora is the signal? We've never seen what Asriel's will looks like from the one it's being acted on. Could it be a simple corona of light in the eye? Could it have origins with the fairies? Or could this be a gift of Lyra's... it is seen that she is a bit of a fairy child. Well, only time and Philip Pullman's next book can answers these questions. So I will stew on them until the next book. And no, I'm not going to stew patiently.


Newer Post Older Post Home