“…things in the water that had been disturbed…”

IMG_2144The year 2017 had its hellish moments. Well, quite a few of them. But it did bring the new Philip Pullman book, and for that I am so very grateful. As I began reading, I felt I was back in a lovely, familiar world–even though, within pages, I had to be ready to wage pitched battle against the forces of evil.

How much more timely could this book have been, with its epic battle for free speech and its commentary on the evolution of totalitarian regimes? The world in this companion to His Dark Materials is a broken one, and in that way it’s like our own. We see it through the prism of Pullman’s alternate Oxford–less alternate than the one in the trilogy. Pull back the coal silk tarp and you find climate change, the power of corruption, sexual assault, the subversion of democratic institutions, and more. We see it all through the eyes of an under-the-radar witness, eleven-year-old Malcolm. Restless, curious, but also honest and capable, he’s an unlikely hero. But he’s not alone; he’s part of a loving community, and somehow it seems perfectly reasonable that the fate of the world might rest in his hands. And yet he’s just a kid, leaping into perils he can’t yet begin to imagine.

When Malcolm goes around town spreading the word that the big storm is coming, this is what we read:

Then, leaning against the wind, with Asta tucked tight into his breast, he fought his way onto the bridge and looked down at the racing water. He remembered what Coram Van Texel had said: there were things in the water that had been disturbed, and things in the sky too.

A lovely review from Waterstones:

In our real world, too, we see plenty of “things in the water that had been disturbed.” And we’re engaged in similar battles. As the book unfolded, I was struck by how  Pullman renders as sacred the right to be governed by reason.

And then there’s Lyra, just a baby. What a tough job it is to show character in a baby who can’t yet talk! Pullman does this in clear, luminous prose–the trademark daemons don’t hurt either.

Lyra had been yelling as Alice washed her and put a clean dry nappy on her, but it was a shout of general anger rather than distress. Her little daemon, who had been a very disheveled rat, became a miniature bulldog and joined in the row till Alice’s greyhound daemon picked him up and shook him, which startled the child into outraged silence.

Pointed and unafraid, The Book of Dust, in an odd, indirect way, gave me hope.

Remembering Mal Peet’s work

I was so sad to hear that Mal Peet died recently. I discovered his books late in my life, and was sorry I hadn’t found them earlier. I was hoping our VCFA students might get to hear Mal speak at Bath this summer, but sadly that is not to be.

tamarIt’s been a few years since I read it, but I can still remember Tamar, his Carnegie Medal winning historical novel set in the 1944 “Hunger Winter” with two undercover Dutch operatives parachuting into Nazi-occupied Holland. Small things turned the story. A box inherited by the 15-year-old character from her grandfather. A broken plate. The unraveling of an old story by a girl with all the energy and anguish that only the young can feel in quite that way. He nailed it all.

And the soccer books–in lesser hands those stories with their interweaving narratives would have crashed and burned. Soccer and “dream-like”? Would those two thoughts not seem to be at odds? But Mal Peet had me riveted with his quick wit and keen eye and deft story turns. I am only sorry our paths never managed to cross in real time.