Thursday, December 02, 2010

Philip Pullman - The Ruby In The Smoke

The sheer brilliance of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series for young adults has unjustly hidden his excellent other works. His series of novels about Sally Lockhart, that begins with The Ruby in the Smoke, contains no fantasy, though at times they are fantastical and amazing. Ruby is at times a deeply disconcerting novel, even for the adult reader. The plot begins with Sally trying to find out about her missing father, by enquiring at his former place of work. Anonymous letters and brief allusions, as well as the sudden death of one of her fathers colleagues when she mentions an unknown phrase, spur her to dig deeper into a growing mystery.

This is a novel for young adults. So the structure and plot is not as complex as adults might expect. It is however deeply descriptive and for those who know East London, it certainly feels real. Indeed I wouldn't have been surprised if Pullman had tramped the streets of London to get the descriptions right. There are shocks, and Pullman doesn't hide any of the nastiness of Victorian poverty. In fact he highlights it, partly I think to underline the horrible future that Sally faces, should she fail in her adventure.

As in so many other novels aimed at this age group, most of the people who Sally meets are kind, and she falls on her feet many times. Though at one point late in her adventure, the expected rescue is nothing of the kind. Sally travels back and forth across London, eventually facing down her evil enemy, who is a brilliantly realised nemesis aimed particularly to frighten, or at least un-nerve younger readers.

Pullman has created a brilliantly realised world. It evokes a time of poverty, hunger and unemployment, when women were expected to know their place, but were people were already questioning the social setup. Later novels in the series develop this further, exposing and challenging other aspects of Victorian society (anti-Semitism for instance).

In many ways Ruby is a precurssor to the Dark Materials, not by content but by structure and emotion. It's a great read for an adult, it'd be amazing for younger readers.

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