Read: September 2007
The plot centres on Matilda, a fourteen year old girl growing up in a small village in Bougainville in the path of an encroaching civil war. Her father left some years before to work in the mines of Australia and masquerade as a white man, leaving her mother bitter and resentful. It is 86 days since Matilda’s school was closed and the spectre of civil war is approaching. The island has been forgotten by the outside world, an outside world the villagers are not even sure they believe in anymore. Slowly but surely the battle between the ‘redskins’ and the ‘rambos’ is creeping towards the village from the other end of the island.
Then, one day, the school re-opens, tutored by the only white man in the village, a man known only as Pop Eye. When Mr. Watts (a.k.a. Pop Eye) promises to introduce the children to Mr. Dickens they each scurry home to their parents and return with a list of requests to make of this beneficent white man. So when Mr. Watts flourishes a copy of Great Expectations, proclaiming that he will introduce them to the greatest English author of the nineteenth century through his finest work, they are slightly bemused.
But it turns out the Mr. Watts is a fantastic storyteller and over the next 59 days the class sits in raptures as Pip’s rollercoaster journey unfolds. For Matilda, this is the best introduction she could have wished for, a friend to believe in, another skin to step inside of. Like many of her fellow classmates, she is drawn to the escapism and understanding presented by imagining another world – even if, like her fellow classmates, she struggles to comprehend the concept of a frosty morning! So enamoured is she with her new friend Pip that Matilda writes his name in the sand, and begins decorating it with shells she finds on the beach.
But soon the soldiers arrive, drawn by this proclamation of a man they have never heard of, a man named Pip they now believe to be some sort of resistance leader. And as the village is drawn into the bloody battle for supremacy on the island, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred and soon the whole future of the village is to be determined by the story Mr. Watts is about to tell.
Mister Pip is a short and inviting coming of age novel in which the lives of Matilda and her fellow villagers are dramatically transformed by the power of a story and the will of a collective imagination. Its plot and language are simple, narrated by Matilda as the world she has come to know is slowly eroded away and replaced by a new world, a world she has found in the words of Mr. Dickens. Lloyd Jones ability to draw parallels between Great Expectations and the events on the island is impressive and he uses the setting to inspire interesting discussions on the nature of belief, the power of self actualisation. He is subtle in his plot development, with many of the events holding clever double meanings. Mr. Watts is a fascinating character; chameleonic, imprecise, enthralling. In fact, in terms of plot and character development this is a very good novel. My problem with it comes from its general impression, the feelings it engenders and the way it is written.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mister Pip is going to be a huge success, a word of mouth hit which will enthral many readers and transport them to exotic other worlds. Like Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader it is a fable about the power of reading to transform lives, a message I wholly endorse. However, The Uncommon Reader is a far, far better book than this, and the main reason is that Alan Bennett knows that what he is writing is essentially satire, it is a humorous jape in the margin of the absurd. Whereas Mister Pip is a little too full of itself and a little too desperate to shout its message from the rooftops. Its message is almost disgustingly simplistic and sickly sweet: our ability to mould ourselves in life as if we were telling a story.
It is not that Lloyd Jones is a bad writer, it is that this book which is set on a war torn island and involves acts which should be disgusting and disturbing to the reader, is almost unbearably blasé about it all. Maybe I am a cynic but I found myself craving a little sour twang, a little edge, a little something nasty. After all people are being cut up with machete’s, whole villages being burned to the ground. Is it too much to expect a bit of horror in these events? Or are they just there to illicit a little sympathy from a readership which wants to pretend it got its hands bloody.
In that way Mister Pip is reminiscent of The Kite Runner: it is a novel with such a soft, happy and positive exterior that no matter what horrific event is taking place in the narrative, you cannot help but know that everything is going to be alright in the end. This is largely caused by the nature of the narration, a book written years later by someone who as a child survived the events they are describing. The result being the narration is lost between childhood language and adult perspective, dominated by the notion of survival and happy endings. And what a horrible moral that is for any story. So fake, fabled, absurd.
Having read Mister Pip I felt the need to read the most sparse narrative I could find. I needed a real whiff of grittiness to calm my soul after this picture postcard image of war with a bright pink catchphrase proclaiming ‘wish you were here!’ against a beautiful sunset.
I am sure that most people out there will love this book, and perhaps because of it they will read Great Expectations. I certainly will. And that is certainly a good thing. But in the end give me someone bitter like A.M. Homes anytime over this wishy washy, self indulgent nonsense.
5.5 out of 10