Back in the day, these were words that evoked excitement, impatience, frustration…and taught us the meaning of deferred gratification. There was rarely more than a week to wait for the next instalment of a gripping comic or magazine serial, or the next episode of Doctor Who.
The books we favoured were often in series rather than serials; it didn’t matter too much in which order we read Biggles or The Famous Five, and the same principle held true if we moved on to Poirot, Sherlock Holmes or The Scarlet Pimpernel: the main characters (often crime-solvers or adventurer-seekers) were largely fixed, but the plots and adversaries changed.
Reading serials is different. However much the author makes allowances for new readers, the assumption is that you come to book two having read book one, and so on, whether it’s A Game of Thrones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter or Bridget Jones. The main characters develop; there is a long-term trajectory and – hopefully – the provision of a comfort break for the reader in the form of a suitably satisfying – if temporary – denouement at each volume end. It may be years before the next instalment, but, hey, we’re readers, we’re prepared to wait: not for us the ‘box-set’ phenomenon, though we may yet binge-read our favourites the second time around!
I write having just finished two volumes published long after their predecessors – Atwood’s The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985) and Pullman’s The Secret Commonweath (some nineteen years after The Amber Spyglass, the last in the His Dark Materials trilogy, but just two years after the prequel, La Belle Sauvage).
Would Atwood have envisaged a sequel if Donald Trump had not been elected; had the television adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale, with its strong characterisation, not chimed so strongly with the ‘MeToo’ movement; or had a generation of literature students who’d cut their teeth on young adult dystopias not seen its relevance to the political situation of the day? Though The Testaments is a long book, it’s a pacy read, cutting as it does between three narrative voices and giving more background to the rise of Gilead and its relations with its neighbours in north America – but I doubt it answers all the questions readers have raised.
Philip Pullman also reflects on the issues of our own world – poverty, oppression, corruption, migration, violence towards women. I remember sharing the original trilogy with my adult son and a young grandson and suspect this dark tale will defy age-appropriate recommendations in the same way. This new, long book (700 pages) initially unites Lyra with the characters from La Belle Sauvage, only to scatter them on long and dangerous journeys across Europe and the near East, ending on a cliff-hanger. I read it at speed, greedily, but then came: to be continued…
Deferred gratification indeed!How could you do this, Mr Pullman?
Ah well, I see the last volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is out in March…
by Brenda Bannister