Shakespeare had Richard Burbage, David Lynch has Laura Dern, and while Philip Pullman is a novelist, rather than a dramatist or a filmmaker, he, too, has an ideal interpreter in the actor Michael Sheen. In fact, I’m prepared to argue that if you don’t experience Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy (of which two volumes, La Belle Sauvage and, this month, The Secret Commonwealth, have been published) via Sheen’s narration, you’ll be reading a diminished version of the novel.
The Secret Commonwealth takes place 20 years after the events in La Belle Sauvage, in which Lyra Belacqua, the central character in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, appears as an infant. Now she’s a young Oxford scholar, intrigued by the works of a pair of celebrated but sophistical thinkers: one a fanatical rationalist, the other a complete relativist. (The first bears no small resemblance to Ayn Rand, despite being a man.) These new ideas serve to further alienate her from her daemon, Pantalaimon, who has not forgiven her for abandoning him to travel through the land of the dead years earlier. Lyra is also the target of yet another baroque conspiracy brewing in the upper echelons of the Magesterium, the sinister pan-Christian church presiding over Pullman’s alternate-history version of Europe. Coming to her aid are characters introduced in La Belle Sauvage, including Malcolm Polstead (now an Oxford scholar himself, and in his early 30s) and Alice Parlow.
La Belle Sauvage was set almost entirely in Oxford and its environs, but The Secret Commonwealth is a sprawling, globe-trotting yarn, sending Lyra off to Central Asia by way of the Levant in search of Pan, who runs away from home. It’s part spy novel, part mystical quest narrative, studded with allusions to our-world problems in the form of refugees, conniving multinational corporations, fundamentalist terrorists, and ideological police.
Sheen told Entertainment Weekly that after many eight-hour shifts narrating the 650-page story, he found himself “very much in the Pullman bubble.” You can tell. At times, particularly in moments of intense or violent action, he seems almost possessed by the novel. Pullman’s fiction is full of reliable storytelling gambits, moves that would seem a bit corny if another writer tried them, but he carries them off because he has a complete faith in them that is divorced from his own ego. He employs these devices as if they were high-quality traditional tools handed down to him by master craftsmen, which in a way they are.
To narrate a story like this requires both the brio of a street performer who knows just how to manipulate his audience and the flawless conviction of a small child describing his favorite movie. Sheen brings both. Yes, he’s a great (and technically accomplished) actor who has devised individualized voices for the novel’s dozens of characters, from stolid housekeeper to feline intriguer to traumatized village girl to effusive peddler to petulant invalid to fabulously colorful elderly countess. (Note to authors: Attempting to do this while narrating your own audiobook and not being a trained actor may lead to widespread ridicule.) But it is Sheen’s complete commitment to the story that makes this narration. I have friends who read The Secret Commonwealth in print and felt that the novel lags in the middle, as Lyra searches for her Pan and Malcolm follows her across nations riven by political strife. I listened to the book in a thrall, propping up my laptop on the bathroom sink because a 10-minute shower break seemed unthinkable, lying awake in the dark until 3 a.m., thrilled to be in the Pullman bubble and wishing it would never end.