Sunday, 5 November 2017

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1 by Philip Pullman

"There were things in the water that had been disturbed, and things in the sky too...."

I spent most of last week lugging around my new copy of La Belle Sauvage so as not to miss any opportunity to read a few more pages. Wherever I went the weighty tome came along like my own sturdy hard backed daemon. So addictive is the spell that Philip Pullman casts in anything that he writes that for me, at least, its hard to concentrate on anything else!

La Belle Sauvage is the first of a new trilogy of books that serve as an 'equal' to Pullman's classic chronicles 'His Dark Materials'. The story sets out to explain how his heroine Lyra ended up living inside Jericho College, Oxford, at the beginning of Northern Lights but at the same time La Belle Sauvage is an epic fantasy story in its own right.

Philip Pullman is an expert in the fairy tale genre having retold the classics himself in Grimm's Tales. La Belle Sauvage delivers all the classic fairy-tale tropes, and much more, in a piece of writing that blends Hans Christian Andersen with Tolkien. Anyone familiar with Vladimir Propp's Analysis of Functions in Folktales will immediately recognise the 'Donor' and the 'Magical Agent'. Pullman builds on the classic folktale structure to create a vivid new world.

The hero of La Belle Sauvage is plucky adventurer Malcolm an 11 year old boy who just wants to do the right thing whether by his parents at The Trout, the pub they run by the river Thames or the nuns in the priory where he helps with errands. Malcolm is an every-boy who readers can easily identify with; his curiosity, his tenacity and his willingness to trust is what drives the narrative forward.

La Belle Sauvage begins with a fair amount of scene setting but then becomes a tale about a journey after an unprecedented flood leads Malcolm and his friend Alice to set off aboard La Belle Sauvage to carry baby Lyra to safety. Pullman pulls of a classic villain in Bonneville a genuinely frightening and violent man with a fierce three legged Hyena daemon who relentlessly pursues Malcolm and Alice.  Like the brothers Grimm and HC Andersen, Pullman is never afraid to depict real fear and pain.

The pace builds throughout the novel as the chase tightens and the flood waters rise and its right here that Pullman introduces mythical creatures and witches taken from ancient folklore and weaved beautifully into an idiosyncratic version of England. At times I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguru's The Buried Giant in the depiction of an England in which giants roam against an ancient landscape. 

La Belle Sauvage is a cracking read and now that I've finished I miss my sturdy hard backed daemon by my side. Not long to wait until Volume 2.

I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire (where better to read Philip Pullman?)

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1 by Philip Pullman published by Penguin, 560 pages.     

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