Book of Dust Volume One 'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman sat, incredibly, for several months, on the arm of the sofa. Having agreed to read it together there just weren't moments when we were all in the house and available at the same time, and then Monkey kept going away visiting and then we had the house move and it just dragged on and on. The dust (but not the Dust) has settled and now, finally, we managed to read. Philip Pullman did not disappoint, but then I would never have expected him to. It was wonderful to re-enter the world of the alethiometer, to meet old friends (though somewhat younger than they were last time) and find new ones.
Malcolm Polstead and his daemon Asta live on the river and own a boat, La Belle Sauvage. The boat herself becomes as much of a character as anyone else, and her fate is just as vital to the plot. The insidious influence of the church, represented by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, is encroaching on daily life, recruiting school children to spy on their friends and family. The arrival of a baby at the priory across the river, brings a variety of strangers to The Trout inn, all very curious about her. After witnessing peculiar events on the riverbank Malcolm is befriended by the scholar Hannah Relf, who's appearance in His Dark Materials is unremarkable, but here she draws him unintentionally into the underground movement 'Oakley street'. When another of our old friends, Farder Coram, arrives and gives Malcolm some timely advice we know to trust him, though all that follows takes on a magical quality; who is responsible for the flood is never quite clear.
We enjoyed being able to spot people we already knew, and to feel familiar with the terminology of Lyra's world. The book does much to satisfy the need to know more detail, more background to the events in Dark Materials, to broaden the picture of the other world. We jumped back in as if we had never left.
Here is Malcolm on the riverbank watching a stranger search for something he has dropped:
" 'We could go and help,' said Asta.
Malcolm was torn. He could still see the grebes, and he very much wanted to watch them, but the man seemed as if he needed help, and he was sure Asta's eyes would find the thing, whatever it was. It would only take a minute or so.
But before he had the chance to do anything, the man bent and scooped up his cat-daemon and made of quite quickly down the towpath as if he'd decided to go and get help. At once Malcolm backed the canoe out of the reeds and sped forward to the spot under the oak tree, where the man had been standing. A moment later he'd jumped out holding the painter, and Asta in the shape of a mouse shot across the path and under the bush. A rustling of leaves, a silence, more rustling, more silence, while Malcolm watched the man reach the little iron footbridge to the piazza and climb the steps. Then a squeak of excitement told Malcolm that Asta had found it, and squirrel-formed she came racing back, up his rm and on to his shoulder, and dropped something into his hand.
'It must be this,' she said. 'It must be.'
At first sight it was an acorn, but it was oddly heavy, and when he looked more closely he saw that it was carved out of a piece of tight-grained wood. Two pieces, in face: one for the cup, whose surface was carved into an exact replica of the rough overlapping scales of a real one and stained very lightly with green; and one for the nut, which was polished and waxed a perfect glossy light brown. It was beautiful, and Asta was right: it had to be the thing the man had lost." (p.29.30)
Thanks Philip, we eagerly await the next instalment.