Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

July 30, 2022

     Another ripping yarn, and with characters and events linked to the others. Reading this, years after meeting His Dark Materials, you can see an accomplished writer, assured of his audience, shaping up to write his masterpiece. There is, for example, a clear forerunner of the sinister Mrs Coulter and her monkey daemon in the villain of this novel, whom we previously met in The Ruby in the Smoke; indeed you can see how the whole concept of the externalised aspect of the personality and soul which a daemon is, may have developed from here.

We are thrust head-first into an outrageous situation and mystery: why should anyone forge a marriage and then a divorce with the aim of seizing a child? Pullman also hints at the darker side of sexuality in Victorian times: paedophilia is not a late twentieth century evil, and some readers may recall Anthony Horowitz digging deeper into this murky cesspit in The House of Silk, one of his excellent additions to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Pullman makes clear the potential for unfairness in the application of the law of the land, with the balance in favour of those with money and influence, and also in favour of men in an age when women were mere chattels. There is no protection for the innocent or the underdog when they are faced with corruption and crooked lawyers and policemen.

Equally, Pullman creates strong female characters, independent women with determination, living towards the end of the nineteenth century when women were getting their struggle for equal rights and the vote under way. There is a strong advocacy of social justice in the book, and somehow Pullman just manages to avoid being preachy, and sliding into a roman à thèse for young adults.

The plot of the novel involves a revenge plot consequent on the dénouement of The Ruby in the Smoke, and a good deal focused on poverty in the East End of London, as well as the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which led to an influx of immigration, consequent exploitation, and resentment by the local population which was fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own dark purposes: Pullman seems to be suggesting that nothing much has changed in a century or more in this country. It’s pretty unputdownable, really: well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists in the plot, cliff-hangers, and interesting incidental characters. I’d have loved meeting a novel this well-written in my schooldays of exploring Stamford Public Library.

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