La Belle Sauvage is the first installment in Pullman’s return to Lyra’s Oxford. The story follows Malcolm Polstead, a young boy who works in his parents inn. A mixture of a church led militant youth organization, a local scholar, and a baby named Lyra everything changes for Malcolm.
I loved this book. I was dubious when I first heard about it coming out. His Dark Materials was the ultimate series of my childhood, and given that Harry Potter has been soured for me by Rowling’s incessant meddling I couldn’t really stand to see another series I love be destroyed by 2017. Thankfully, Pullman is a genius and La Belle Sauvage lived up to the original trilogy. But there’s a couple points in the book I really want to talk about so SPOILERS AHEAD guys, prepare yourself.
First of all I was absolutely haunted by the League of St. Alexander, the militant youth group created by Mrs Coulter. Essentially they are a creepy organisation of school children dedicated to selling people out to the church, it escalates and becomes very 1984 very quickly. The teachers are scared, parents are scared, the readers are scared. Honestly, the thing I love about Pullman’s work is that he isn’t afraid to show how malicious children can be. (It sounds like I hate kids and I don’t, generally I hate all people and children are people.) I want to say that these children in the league are amoral, but that would be a gross oversimplification that Pullman himself would frown upon, these children aren’t amoral, they’re just innocent and that innocence lets them be ignorant of their own malice. Like I said, Pullman is a genius.
With the league Pullman shows the danger of complete innocence, but Pullman ruthlessly gives us the loss of innocence through Gerard Bonneville. Like in His Dark Materials Malcolm loses his innocence when he loses trust in the adults around him just as Lyra does. Malcolm finds out that Bonneville is a pedophile who has targeted his friend Alice who is helping him protect Lyra. Now aside from the obvious there are so many terrifying points in this sub-plot that Pullman pulls off so subtly it’s still making me uncomfortable. So first of all, Bonneville is known pedophile, but instead of any parents warning their children, they just say “keep away” and let things carry on, which of course is just a temptation to a child, reluctance to talk means that Malcolm and Alice’s transition from innocence to adulthood is jarring and sudden rather than something their parents can guide them through.
Given the flood Malcolm and Alice (along with Lyra) become completely separated from their parents whilst being pursued by Bonneville. They become a sort of pseudo-family unit which has its own implications and Pullman throws those implications around with gusto. Malcolm, who had previously adored Lyra and loved holding her, gradually starts handing her over to Alice, letting Alice change her nappies, and quickly takes it upon himself to protect them both. He also develops a crush on Alice that hints at a sexual awakening for Malcolm. The point is, a mixture of responsibility, having to act older than his age, and avenging Alice’s innocence by killing Bonneville all compromise Malcolm’s innocence and do nothing to restore Alice’s. However, they do manage to protect Lyra’s innocence.
I realise this has turned into more of an essay than a review, and the only conclusion I have is that this book is as nuanced and beautiful as the original trilogy. There’s more I could write about on this book and I probably will at some point, but if my enthusiasm hasn’t convinced you then the book itself definitely will. Once again, Pullman is a genius.