I steadfastly tried to ignore the hype about La Belle Sauvage for two reasons. I didn’t want anything to distract me from the progress of the MA, and I didn’t want my mind clouded by others’ opinions. I managed to hold out until it was parcelled up for Christmas, and over two days I devoured Pullman’s latest. In short, I loved it.
La Belle Sauvage, I’m told, isn’t necessarily a prequel (from a friend who heard Pullman speak about the book in Bath), and by that, he probably means that you don’t need to know His Dark Materials to read it. It is undoubtedly connected, in character and theme.
La Belle Sauvage tells the story of Lyra (the protagonist of His Dark Materials) as a baby, and how she is revered and protected. It is La Belle Sauvage’s protagonist, the eleven year-old Malcolm Polstead who is her protector. The book is in two parts, the first narrates Malcolm’s world, and the second is pure adventure, as Malcolm is thrown into rescuing Lyra; he embarks on a journey to keep the young baby safe. This second part, The Flood, is a cantering read, with encounters in different realms of magical realism. The worlds that Pullman creates are wonderful and vivid. They are all remarkable, but my particular favourite was the strange place where people drift around in lost memory.
Pullman’s protagonist is a wholly likeable young lad. Malcolm is dutiful and considerate, with emotional intelligence, and a touching affection for the babe-in-arms, little Lyra. He also proves himself to be feisty and determined. His adventuring companion is Alice, the kitchen hand at his parents’ pub (The Trout). Their developing friendship is well-drawn, and plausible. There is something of the older-Lyra in Alice, although they are not connected (or do not seem to be).
Pullman’s chief villain, the despicable Gerard Bonneville is truly menacing. Like most perpetrators, he seems charming, but is not. You know Bonneville is bad news because of his daemon, a hideous three-legged hyaena.
Pullman’s themes are daring, and challenging, which made me question what the target readership is. There are scenes that verge on the explicit – not in content, but in idea. Malcolm observes a sexual encounter (of man and his daemon), and there is a near-rape (of Alice). Pullman also pokes at religion, consistent with His Dark Materials, with nuns and religious zealots who feature throughout the book.
La Belle Sauvage is a highly engaging, gripping read. Pullman has not let this reader down, and I eagerly await the next instalments of this trilogy.