Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman is 'rich and fully realised'

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman is 'rich and fully realised'

The Bookseller's acting children's editor Caroline Carpenter and children's news reporter Heloise Wood give their thoughts on Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage.

"The long-awaited first volume in Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, takes us straight back into the world of His Dark Materials, with appearances from many of the same characters and similar themes around ideas of good and evil and religion vs science.

"This time, the story is told from the point of view of innkeeper's son Malcolm Polstead. At first glance, Malcolm is a less spirited protagonist than Lyra, seeming to share more in common with the other main character in His Dark Materials, Will, thanks to his ability to blend in with his surrounding unnoticed. But Malcolm shares Lyra’s sharp mind and curiosity, meaning he is perfectly placed to pick up on the subtle shifts that are taking place in his hometown of Oxford.

"La Belle Sauvage moves at a slower pace than His Dark Materials, being less plot-driven and more focused on building up a sense of unease as religious bodies begin to increasingly intervene in the lives of citizens. Malcolm is drawn into these tensions by chance and ends up becoming a spy for a mystery rebel organisation. Pullman expertly introduces elements of mystery and crime fiction into the story, which are reflected in Malcolm’s reading material: the works of Agatha Christie.

"It feels like much of La Belle Sauvage is setting up the rest of the trilogy, but it hardly matters. The world building is rich and fully realised, the characters are convincing, and I particularly enjoyed Pullman's asides about the importance of libraries and engaging teaching. Above all, it's a joy to be back in Lyra's Oxford. Fans will be thrilled to meet her as a baby and looking forward to what's to come in the rest of the trilogy."
-Caroline Carpenter

"La Belle Sauvage is a tribute to Pullman's desire to explore the "incorrigibly plural" nature of the universe, as described in the epigraph, lines from Louis MacNeice’s 'Snow'. Pullman’s imagination scales the dizzying depths of love, the nature of personal and institutional evil and what science can hope to explain but not satisfy.

"Pullman's imagery is as dazzling as ever: Malcolm experiences a "shiver of fear" likened to a "the tip of a drumstick drawn across a cymbal". The descriptions of the daemons remain a visceral symbol of our other selves: at one point a man cries out as "the daemon’s pain made his own nerves throb with agony". The context provided by the daemons’ experiences helps immerse us even deeper inside the imagined world while the detailed layering of Oxford pays tribute to the author's love for his home city with the entire first section dedicated to its popular 17th century inn, The Trout, where Malcolm lives and works. One of the most touching moments is when he meets Lyra and realises that he is her "servant for life" and the interplay between the pair's daemons illustrates the instant rapport between the boy and the baby.

"Malcolm's initially thwarted desire for education, recognised by scholar Hannah Relf, is beautifully realised and her lending him a wide range of books will strike a chord with many bibliophiles, inspired by Pullman's own experience as a 10-year-old when an elderly widow let him select titles from her library. The sanctuary Relf affords Malcolm mirrors the concept of sanctuary which sees Lyra deposited with the nuns, and the search for sanctuary is a recurring theme throughout the book.

"Pullman has said that his teaching career helped inspire the universe of the books and that "there was a Lyra and a Malcolm in every class". This book is testament to the author's passion for the transformational effect of education and his respect for young people. It is fitting one of the Grenfell Tower fire's young victims, Nur Huda el-Wahabi, will be honoured as a character in the second instalment after being nominated by her teacher in a fundraising auction.

"La Belle Sauvage is a magnificently structured book: with allegorical themes and lyrical language, inspired by Pullman's love for the poetry of Milton and Blake, all populated with characters and places we can clearly imagine. Above all, it reveals the incredible ways in which 'ordinary' children can react when placed in extraordinary circumstances: with kindness, bravery and cunning."

-Heloise Wood

Read our round-up of critics' responses to the book here.