Thursday, November 23, 2017

'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman

23 November 2017

Searching back through my blog, I was pleased to discover that when I wrote here about Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (reviewed here in April 2008) I noted the similarity between Clarke’s parallel universe and those of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels. While ‘His Dark Materials’ was inspired by Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Philip Pullman’s new trilogy of young adult novels, ‘The Book of Dust’, take Spenser's ‘The Faerie Queene’ as its underlying theme. And in the first of these new novels, ‘La Belle Sauvage’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Michael Sheen), Pullman’s characters’ initial encounters with the fairy world are very reminiscent of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. It was great to return to Philip Pullman’s alternative Oxford – a contemporary world that feels strangely old-fashioned, where familiar places are populated by people with animal daemons. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a prequel to ‘Northern Lights’ – the first ‘His Dark Materials’ novel – and shows us that novel’s hero Lyra Belacqua as a baby, given sanctuary in Godstow Priory to hide her from the Magisterium. This tale is told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at the Trout Inn, across the river Thames from the Priory. It’s more than 15 years since I read the ‘His Dark Materials’ novels and reading ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was like re-encountering an old friend. I had forgotten how good Philip Pullman’s writing is and how genuinely thrilling he makes his stories. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is incredibly scary and exciting (particularly with Michael Sheen’s dramatic narration). These novels are aimed at children but deal with some very serious themes. Ultimately they seem to be very well observed, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, reflections on the process of growing up. This new Philip Pullman novel was a real treat and I can’t wait for the next two books in the series.



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