The major reviews of La Belle Sauvage seem all to be written by superfans of the original series, and The Guardian, Telegraph, etc. gush as much as is compatible with respectable critical writing. I though have my doubts about His Dark Materials, and I have a lot of complaints about the new book which is thin, lazy, full of coincidence, and a bit creepy. There are good things in La Belle Sauvage, sure, and like the original series it reads along like a shot. But since everyone else can tell you about that, I’m just going to complain. I’ll assume you’ve read the novel, so I won’t worry about spoilers.
I’ll start by returning to the original series. His Dark Materials operated on several levels. On one, Lyra and Will took on the challenge of finding their fathers, learned gradually about the magical physics of their world, came to see the complexity of right and wrong, and despite this complexity fought for justice on many fronts. On another, we found aspects of our own politics mirrored in a world where a powerful church was set against everything natural and bent on a project that separated children from their parents, and children from their own souls. On a third, a war raged in heaven between democratic rebel angels and the Authority, a.k.a. God.
The levels were in complex interaction at all times, since the rebel angels manifested as particles (called “dust”) which clustered lightly on children and heavily on the post-pubescent. Rebel angels were therefore to be understood as equivalent to sexuality, and so sexuality was, via the rebel angels, linked to democracy. The series closed with Lyra and Will killing God and, in the roles of a new Adam and Eve, having sex; this was to be seen as the triumph of the democratic, the angelic, and the natural. Along the way, Pullman was careful to recomplicate many of the distinctions that are common to Western religion and Western children’s literature. No character was thoroughly good or evil: thus the human champion of the angelic war, Lord Asriel, slaughtered a young child in a ritual sacrifice to break open a gateway from world to world; thus too Asriel’s lover, the detestable Mrs. Coulter, an ally of the evil church, showed herself a tender mother in the third book. Things are complicated, Pullman seemed to be telling us. At least, everything is complicated except sex. Sex is just good.
In this light, it’s interesting that La Belle Sauvage focuses on sexual predatation and perversion. Its villain is a former scholar of dust, Gerard Bonneville, who has been imprisoned for an unnamed sexual crime and is obsessed with getting hold of the infant Lyra in order to take an unspecified revenge on her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who helped put Bonneville away. Bonneville is clearly insane, but the nature of his madness is unclear. His daemon, who is his soul, is a vile and vulgar hyena, which suggests that he is also vile and vulgar, but he beats and maims his daemon, which suggests otherwise. He seems at one time to have been a respectable man, and yet how could he have been so with this kind of daemon? He has enough by way of looks and charm to be able to seduce some people—including, to various degrees, our two heroes and a nun—while other people, no better than these, are unequivocally repulsed by him. None of this is explained, nor need it be. Bonneville is meant to stand for twisted sexuality, and so he is the hyena and not the hyena; he must act like the bad man he is while also beating and maiming himself; Pullman can use him as a source of attraction or repulsion at will.
And this is the beginning of what of wrong with this novel. Pullman seems to feel a need to fill a gap here, but it’s not any of the gaps we want filled. He doesn’t help us understand the workings of the Rusakov field, or why Lyra can read the alethiometer, or where the gyptains came from, or how Asriel can sacrifice Roger and still be a hero of the rebels, or how the government is set up, or the way the world got to this state, any of the other things we want to know. Instead he throws some bad sex at us. Because sex was the last thing in the HDM left uncomplicated. And maybe it’s occurred to Pullman, who after all reads the news and lives a life, that sex isn’t as uncomplicated as he thought. He’s working something out here, and everything else is left sloppy.
The plot of La Belle Sauvage is basically Cape Fear. A deranged man who was jailed for some time is now free to be perverted and take revenge. In the first half, he hangs around being sinister and frightening people, particularly our heroes, Malcolm and Alice; in the second, he chases our heroes (and baby Lyra) on a boat in a flood—and they keep just about killing him and getting away, and then he’s back, and there’s lots of water and lots of blood, and there’s grabbing and shooting and hacking, and it’s all a big nightmare. Around this plot is the world we’re familiar with from HDM, with the magisterium and the government and the scholars and the normal people going about their business.
Nothing is well developed. What was Bonneville’s “sexual” crime? What is his connection to Mrs. Coulter? How did he get an alethiometer? If the police and Asriel and Bonneville can all individually find out where Lyra is being kept, why can’t Mrs. Coulter? How does Bonneville get into the place where people forget, why can the forgetting-people see him when they can’t see our heroes, and how does he get out? Why is the boat, or the pub it was named after, called La Belle Sauvage? Is Pullman trying with this name to tell us something about the historical figure of Pocahontas, or about exploration or exoticism or colonialism? Are these things okay? Are they not okay in the pub but redeemed in the boat? What are Malcolm’s migraine auras? Where do they come from, and what do they do? How did there come to be so many competing branches of government and why can’t they communicate with one another? Everyone reading this book has read HDM. We already know a lot about the politics, physics, and metaphysics of this world; what is more, we enter this novel willing to cut Pullman a lot of slack, to explain for ourselves what he doesn’t explain to us. But there are too many confusions here, too many difficulties. Meanwhile, serious plot problems are solved by coincidence. The children on the boat are mostly able to get themselves out of trouble with cunning, but at two crucial moments they cannot help themselves, and both times they steer the boat directly into a saviour: Mr. Boatwright and Lord Asriel. Credibility wears thin.
It doesn’t help that the nightmare world of the second half of the book is full of figures from epic or myth. A faerie queen shows up out of nowhere, bringing with her her own physics. There’s a dull-witted river god—why should he be dull-witted? There’s the forgetting-place: unexplained, unconsidered, never returned to. One of the inhabitants of that world is a man who disappeared in the first half of the novel, but we never find out what it was that he had to forget, or whether he will come out of the forgetting world; he is just there, and then we’re no longer there, so it doesn’t matter, it passes, like everything passes in the flood. This sort of pack-ratting of mythological images is nonsense, as indeed is our hero’s unprecedented ability to navigate this world, his Bilbo-like knowledge of the rules of the riddle game and so on. In the first half, Malcolm is interested in things like screws—much is made of his finding a container the lid of which screws on backwards, and even more is made of his reinvention of headless screws. In the second half, he is a master of faerie. How?
My argument is that all these ends are allowed to remain loose because Pullman is doing something else. He is recomplicating sex. The combination of violence and sex is at the bottom of it, motivating Bonneville and variously alluring and disgusting everyone else. But the recomplication has at least one other major manifestation. Malcolm and Alice are, in effect, the new Will and Lyra. They have different back-stories and different futures: they aren’t metaphysically significant, they aren’t the subject of prophesy, and they aren’t in search of their fathers, but they have the same personalities, she with a bit of a foul mouth and and a rag-tag feistiness, he solid and and brave and curious. And their relation follows the same route, beginning with tension, building into a friendship, deepening into a love-between-friends. But towards the end of La Belle Sauvage, things happen that could never have happened to Lyra and Will. Alice has a whole scene in which she expresses a crippling uncertainty about being unattractive and confesses that this is why she was drawn to Bonneville. And Malcolm begins to desire her—not in the Will/Lyra/Adam/Eve way where everything is ethereal, but in a normal complicated way that we all recognize. Sex and sexuality aren’t mythical and redemptive here; they’re regular and potentially embarrassing and sometimes they make you smaller instead of more epic. Pullman is figuring it out, and taking us along for the ride. What will he do now? Will he start to have more sympathy for the sex-hating magisterium? Will he draw a new line in the sand at about the same place where the rest of us draw it, at consent? In any case, the fact that recomplicating sex is his sole intention makes his world-building and his plot into afterthoughts.
The other thing that interested Pullman in HDM but obsesses him here is baby-snatching. In HDM, we had the oblation board—the ones who took children from their parents to cut away their souls, nicely prepared for in La Belle Sauvage, and given a junior wing modelled on the Hitler Youth. But in fact every part of the new novel is driven by the desire to lay hands on Baby Lyra. She is taken away from her parents by the court. Her father has to steal her in order to spend an hour with her. Her mother wants to steal her but can’t find her. Bonneville spends the whole novel trying to steal her. Malcolm and Alice make off with her—they steal her for her safety. A convent of evil nuns steals her from them. A government organization tries to steal her from the evil nuns. Malcolm and Alice thwart both by stealing her back. And finally a faerie queen show up for no other purpose than to try to steal her. Lyra’s baby body is important. It is always being touched, stroked, cleaned, held, and passed off. But the main hands that come for her are hands that grab snatch, abscond. No one hurts the child. Everyone else bleeds, but she does not. The hand does her no violence. It grasps. What on earth is Pullman working out here?