Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Vintage Canada 2008 (2007)
Trade Paperback with Flaps
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now, and when New Zealand came up as the first country in the Travelling the World challenge, it seemed like fate that I’d waited this long to read it. Well, the author’s a Kiwi but the book is actually set on the small tropical island of Bougainville, near Papua New Guinea, in the 1990s. It’s the kind of tropical island where communities live in small villages by the beach, amidst the jungle, living off fish and coconuts, chicken and pigs.
Matilda lives with her mother; her father got a job with the mine and, when it closed, moved to Queensland for a new job in Townsville – they haven’t seen him since, though postcards and occasional gifts still arrive. When the small island descends into war between islanders protesting the environmental impact and poor compensation to the landowners by the copper mine, and armed soldiers (called “redskins” by the islanders), Matilda’s small community does its best to continue on as always, even though their young men and boys are leaving to fight with the rebels and they have to hide in the bush every time a helicopter comes by.
Amongst these deeply black-skinned islanders is one white man, nicknamed “Pop Eye”, who lives in the old missionary house with his possibly crazy wife, Grace. Pop Eye – or Mr Watts – takes it upon himself to teach the village’s children in the old abandoned schoolhouse. There are no resources for the children, but Mr Watts brings an old copy of Great Expectations, which he reads to the kids. The story – and the setting – is completely foreign to them, but it engages their minds to the fullest and sparks their imaginations. Matilda especially thinks of the characters in a personal way, and takes a keen interest in Pip, writing his name in the sand and decorating it with shells.
When the soldiers come through and take down the villagers’ names, the one person unaccounted for is this Pip whose name they found on the beach. Ill, malnourished and looking almost insane, the soldiers are determined to find this missing villager, who they believe is a rebel the village is hiding. They are unable to believe in Pip being a fictional character, and the book itself is missing. Without the book, Mr Watts gives the children a new task: to remember the book, and resurrect it.
The political and historical backdrop is essentially just that, a backdrop, to the real themes of the novel – but it is one of those skilfully depicted, moving and deeply tragic backdrops that provide more than context to the main story. Set in any other time or place, Matilda’s story of awakening imagination and the freedom it brings would have little impact, or much less anyway. The juxtaposition of this comparatively frivolous story of the orphan boy and his great expectations against the frightening reality of armed soldiers and rebels terrorising villagers, of the blockade preventing resources from reaching them, of the lack of international interest in what was happening on their island, is powerful, complex and fascinating. On a smaller scale, Matilda experiences the conflict between her mother, a god-fearing woman, and Mr Watts, an atheist.
As we progressed through the book something happened to me. At some point I felt myself enter the story. I hadn’t been assigned a part – nothing like that; I wasn’t identifiable on the page, but I was there. I knew that orphaned white kid and that small, fragile place he squeezed into between his awful sister and lovable Joe Gargery, because the same space came to exist between Mr. Watts and my mum. And I knew I would have to choose between the two. (pp.46-7)
Not only does the novel express the importance of imagination and of having the words to express yourself, but it also shows the timeless quality of great fiction. As western students we routinely moan about having to study Shakespeare, never really understanding the relevance because the teacher doesn’t get it either; it’s just on the curriculum. But these stories survive and live on in our imaginations for many reasons, not least of all the “universality” of their stories (within a white, Anglo/Western/European context, mostly) – Matilda and Mister Pip show that even a black person from a tropical island who can’t even picture English marshes or pork pies, can relate to the core themes of a story, the essentials, the characters and their relationships. It’s a shared human experience, isn’t it? Take the essential elements of the story and transpose them to an African country, or an Asian one – would they necessarily change all that much? This is part of what keeps these stories alive at the academic level, I’m sure.
As a story, it’s simply and beautifully told in Matilda’s older voice, and while you might think that by looking back and writing this story as a young, well educated woman, she would provide more adult insight and context, I loved that she shared her story as the child she was when it happened; that is, with her child’s understanding. There are moments when Matilda will explain things, but you never lose the impression of her as a child and young teenager, experiencing all these things. You really come to believe in her and her world, and care deeply for them all.
Mr Watts – or “Mister Pip” as he was, in one sense – is another strong character, as is Matilda’s mother. Mr Watts is a curiosity in the village, an oddity, as is his wife Grace who grew up on the island but left to continue her education, returning years later a broken woman in the company of a quiet white man. He’s a familiar character to us not least because he’s identifiable, being white and of “our” world, but also because he embodies that subtle, sardonic persona that you can find in Dickens and other western works. Yet, through Matilda’s eyes, we see and feel his strangeness, and our own. It’s quite wonderfully done.
It’s a surprisingly quick read, if you have the time to sit down with it and not be distracted, and it’s easily accessible to younger readers. I would say it’s a benefit to have read Great Expectations first, to better understand the details from the story that are talked about between Mr Watts and the children, and also because there are spoilers in this for the older book. If you haven’t read the Dickens book, this might encourage you – I hope so, it’s worth reading.
Read Kristie’s New Zealand selection at Live Through Books.
“…a compelling tale about the power of story and really looks at the consequences of our actions, the horror of war, and simple goodness.” Medieval Bookworm
“…the book is about the power of storytelling in its various incarnations–its power to enhance, uplift, protect, threaten, destroy, and alter lives beyond repair. … I can’t say I particularly liked or disliked it; merely that I had no great expectations for this book, and it neither exceeded nor disappointed them.” Books and Bards
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