Posts Tagged ‘philip pullman’

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are three of my favourite books in the world. The books, if you haven’t read them, follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies and take animal forms. The sheer imagination that suffuses the novels is wondrous, and is underpinned by Pullman’s powers of characterisation; Lyra and her companion, Will, who’s from our world, are no mere products of ink on paper, but are as present as living, breathing flesh; as are their animal souls.

One of the most striking preoccupations of the books, and a common target for commentary since their publication, is the strength and corruption of its fictional church, called the Magisterium. In Northern Lights, the first of the books, the Magisterium has built a laboratory to perform dreadful experiments on children in the name of trying to eradicate Dust, which they believe is a physical manifestation of sin. The books are peppered with zealots of all kinds, from the lethal Mrs Coulter, a power-hungry associate of the Magisterium, to fanatics willing to flagellate themselves in advance punishment for crimes. Pullman’s fictional assailment upon wealthy, corporate churches was echoed in his personal statements, with his famous quote ‘My books are about killing God’ earning him plenty of ire from Christians all around the world.

His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I reviewed recently for The Big Issue, tackles similar ground in a more radical fashion. In fact, it might be seen as the thematic prequel to the His Dark Materials books: it sets up the structures and mythology that Pullman had Lyra tear down. Pullman reimagines the original Christian birth as a double: Mary is the mother of twins, Jesus and Christ. Christ is the early forerunner in the story, a child who performs miracles and often assists his more compulsive brother, Jesus, out of trouble. As the brothers age, the differences intensify – Jesus becomes a charismatic religious teacher devoted to God, who repels with disgust Christ’s attempts to persuade him to capitalise on his influence and assemble a structured church, ‘all answering to the authority of one supreme director’.

Christ is asked by a mysterious stranger to make a record of Jesus’ doings, and he does so – at first as accurately as he can, but then with some revisions and editing. So we learn that the stories we now know from the Bible were entirely different in the doing; we see the tension of myth and history. For instance, the paralysed man whom Jesus exhorts to take up his mat and walk was not cured, but ’so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move’. And, at a wedding in Cana where the wine has run out, Jesus has a few words with a steward and more wine appears, but it’s not certain exactly how; it’s possible that Jesus has simply asked for more to be brought out.

There is a lot to admire in the book, but there are also disappointments. I have not read anything so beautiful this year as The Good Man Jesus’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is served well by Pullman’s easy yet arresting prose. His way with characterisation and dialogue (assisted, of course, by the source material) provides us with a Jesus who is resolute and lion-like in ferocity. But there’s close to no subtlety in Jesus’s diatribe in Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel, this is a moment of enduring and bottomless faith. But in The Good Man Jesus, Jesus has lost his faith completely, and is using his last moments not for reconciliation but catharsis: ‘Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in our name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.’ It’s rather too ‘The Church’s Worst Crimes throughout the Ages’, and not strongly foreshadowed in the book; as Rowan Williams said in his Guardian review, ‘nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God’.

The Christian story is one that clearly has a powerful hold on Pullman. In fact, such is its power over him that my thoughts upon reading The Good Man Jesus were of a similar tenor to James Bradley’s conclusion in May 5th’s Australian Literary Review (though nowhere near as finely worded) that The Good Man Jesus ‘is a book so bound up in its argument with religion that it is … essentially a religious text, unable to transcend the terms of its creation’. The dilemma faced by Christ – how to represent Jesus’s story and ensure its longevity – is one that accepts the power and grace of that originary story. But while Pullman may have an argument with religion, he certainly doesn’t have anything against the power of story, the sole element of religion that emerges from the book unscathed.

Read the transcript of a conversation between Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose intelligence and engagement with non-Christian viewpoints make me furious about being in the poisonous vicinity of George Pell), here.

The cardinal rule of British culture isn’t anything to do with tea or the Queen. The rule is that if there’s a pretty, spunky character in a TV adaptation of a book, she shall be played by Billie Piper (see also Doctor Who, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and, uh, okay, Mansfield Park doesn’t count since Fanny Price is basically a blancmange with a piece of muslin draped over the top.) Suffering the indignity of reading a book with her face on it in public is pretty minor, though, since the book is written by Philip Pullman. Plus, she herself doesn’t annoy me all that much — it’s her ubiquity I find so galling.

The Shadow in the North is the second of Pullman’s ‘Sally Lockhart’ books. Plucky, ahead-of-her-time Sally is a financial consultant in 1800s London. One of her clients, Miss Walsh, has lost a lot of money in a shipping company called Anglo-Baltic, and Sally vows to get Miss Walsh’s money back. But it’s all a bit mysterious, because Anglo-Baltic’s ship, the Ingrid Linde, has just sunk without a trace in the middle of the sea. Meanwhile, Sally’s friend Jim has come across two standover men threatening MacKinnon, a skittish magician who can see into the future.

Yay — a mystery, and a mystery with a principled, brave, intelligent heroine. Sally is very quickly a character to get behind:

“You had three thousand pounds — isn’t that right? And I advised you to go for shipping.”
“I wish you had not,” said Miss Walsh. “I bought shares in a company called Anglo-Baltic, on your recommendation. Perhaps you remember.”
Sally’s eyes widened. Miss Walsh, who’d taught geography to hundreds of girls before she retired, and who was a shrewd judge, knew that look well; it was the expression of someone who’s made a bad mistake, and has just realised it, and is going to face the consequences without ducking.

But it’s not all goody two-shoes. Sally and her friends traipse through dance halls, lie their way into soirées, expose fake mediums, fall in love, learn card tricks and escape attempted hits. Well, Sally does go to the library at some stage to check out the patent registration lists. But Pullman can really write plot-driven stories, even with scenes set in libraries; he fills the pages with character and twist after character and twist.

One thing I love about young adult books is their capacity to unambiguously highlight the morality of actions, decisions and lives. It isn’t all angst and burgeoning hormones and unicorns, you know. Before long, Sally discovers that the disappearance of the Ingrid Linde isn’t her only problem: Axel Bellman, the owner of Anglo-Baltic and an extremely wealthy industrial entrepreneur, is involved in the manufacture of the Hopkinson Self-Regulator, which may be a weapon the likes of whcih the world has never yet seen. The book culminates in an exploration of violence, utilitarianism, love and power. Just as good books should, hey. Why are your friends reading Twilight? They should be reading this instead.

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The Tin Princess is the fourth of Philip Pullman’s Victorian young adult mystery books. I’m the first to acknowledge that my blog has been broken-recordy lately: Philip Pullman … blah blah blah … amazing … Philip Pullman … amazing … blah blah blah. Sorry. But he really is super good at what he does.

So instead of a regular thumbs up review, I thought I’d say something about why I think he is so good. When I am impressed by an adventure story, it’s because I feel like I myself take a kick in the guts every now and then. Pullman is good at serving up that kick, and one of the tricks he uses is pulling a moment wide open right in the middle of an action scene, using detail to forge a connection between the characters. For example, a seemingly benign introduction:

Jim noticed that both of them were immediately aware of the way he made the introduction: they were introduced to her, not she to them, so she must be their social superior. There was a bristle of surprise, and then it was his turn.

or, at the end of a wild chase:

Off balance, they stumbled and gathered themselves to look up at the face of a woman: a beautiful, dark-eyed, bare-shouldered, raven-tressed Spanish-looking actress in a scarlet gown. She was frightened; she could hardly speak for the rapid beating of her heart.

Notice the way he uses the physical reactions of the characters. Yet he doesn’t give the characters or the reader the luxury of contemplation, he moves right along. The result being that you know that something important has happened, but not what the significance of it is yet. Effective, and much more exciting than just a plain old donnybrooking.

Recommended for: you, her, him, them, everyone.

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I am a total broken record about Philip Pullman, ‘you should read him’ ad nauseam. Sure, you wish you could turn me off like a radio. But eventually you’ll pick this up for a young cousin or something, and you’ll read the (killer) first couple of pages and you will curse yourself a thousand times for not listening to me, and you’ll read it until you finish it or fall asleep with your nose on the paper.

I wish I’d read this fifteen years ago. It’s the third in the Sally Lockhart series — a Victorian mystery about a heroine who is feminist in word and deed, written so well that you can’t believe Pullman’s heart rate ever cracks a hundred. It’s just that good. It doesn’t dumb down to a younger audience, and would be a top instrument for introducing the complexities of legal process, race hatred, socialism and poverty to a future caring intellectual. I think it’s Michael Robotham who said that he doesn’t plan when he writes his crime books, and that he gets to a point where he feels like he can’t possibly extricate his character from the predicament he’s put them in. Reading this book is exactly the same, so urgent and heartbreaking that the ending is almost irrelevant because you’re so busy admiring Pullman’s guts. Ten out of ten resounding hurrahs.

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When Helen Garner was asked at the Melbourne Writers Festival (yes, I’m still milking it) about the books she loved, she said that the last books she had read with a kind of crazed greed were Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Those are absolutely three of my favourite books in the world. I read that series ensconced in bed, the diary cleared, and tea and biscuits within reach.

It’s not uncommon for writers to have hits and misses – I loved all of Tamora Pierce’s books but I couldn’t get through a single of one of her Circle of Magic books. So, on the same logic, I never sought out Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books (the first of which is The Ruby in the Smoke). Finding it in the City Library last week, then, was a wildly mixed blessing. But I needn’t have worried because the first page is an absolute ripper. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good one.

The Ruby in the Smoke is set in London some time in the 1800s. Yes, I found this book in the YA section, but there are things in this book that would have the anti-Harry Potter brigade tutting for sure. Sally Lockhart is a very pretty 16-year old who carries a gun and doesn’t take to officious authority, but she also loves accounting and knows obscure things about photography. Plus she speaks Hindustani. If I had kids I’d much rather have them reading about her than the Olsen twins.

The titular smoke refers to opium, and during Sally’s search for her father, she discovers the wretchedness brought upon the Chinese and British people unfortunate enough to come under its spell. In Sally Lockhart, Pullman has given us a wondrously human heroine who is loyal, brave and capable, just like Lyra after her. Though there’s no comparison between this book and the His Dark Materials books in terms of scope (which deals with God and parallel universes, for crying out loud) The Ruby in the Smoke is certainly equal in compassion, excitement and intrigue.

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