Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Cover of
Cover of Mister Pip

I spent last week recovering from a nasty virus that swept through our family with much devastation.  And as a result I am falling farther and farther behind in my reviews, so I wanted to post a review/discussion of Mister Pip which I picked up at a library sale recently to start the week off.

I will admit to some difficulty getting my thoughts down on this one, but I must push on if I am to get anything done.  I enjoyed the book but just can’t seem to organize my thoughts and reactions all that well.  Perhaps writing this post will help.

As I am lazy allow me to steal the story summation from the Washington Post review:

On an island called Bougainville in the early 1990s, civil war rages. Rebels have taken up arms, and soldiers helicopter in from nearby Port Moresby to reestablish New Guinea’s sovereignty over the island. All the whites have fled except one: Mr. Watts, a New Zealander married to a local woman. He offers to replace the departed teacher and reopen the village school; on the second day of class, he begins to read Great Expectations aloud.

Suddenly, the village’s children have a refuge from the incomprehensible conflict engulfing their world. “We could escape to another place,” declares Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator. “It didn’t matter that it was Victorian England. We found we could easily get there.”

Unfortunately, the refuge only lasts so long.  Soon Mr. Watts, Pip and the island’s tragic fate are intertwined and Matilda will be forced to deal with the consequences.

For me the story can be divided into three parts: the initial narration of Matilda leading up to Mr. Watts reading Dickens and the unfolding of her love of Dickens/Pip; the dark turn when the violence of the war comes to the island in an ugly way; and lastly Matilda’s post-island life and career.

I was totally captivated by the first section, found the second section harsh but beautiful in its own way, but the final section left me a little cold.

One of the things that makes the novel interesting is how it works on multiple levels.  One thread clearly deals with literature and imagination.  Reading Great Expectations allows the kids to learn how they can – through literature – come to visualize and understand people and places totally foreign to them; in a sense have these things become a part of their lives.

And when the book is lost, and then destroyed, Mr. Watts has them use their imagination to reconstruct the book.  He uses this challenge to also show them that each person’s mind is ones own; that the power of imagination is not something that can be taken away.  This autonomy is something Matilda comes to cherish.

And lastly, in his telling of his own story Mr. Watts reveals that imagination is not always such a straightforward thing; that it can often change our “real” lives in unexpected and unintended ways.  It also highlights how truth and fiction are not always so clearly seperate.

The book is also about relationships.  Matilda’s relationship with her distant father, her protective mother, and Mr. Watts take center stage.  But there are also rifts on the power relationships involved in colonialization and control; between those with power – military, political, cultural, social, etc. – and those without.  And about how expectations change our relationships.

As I noted above, I found the first two thirds of the book captivating and poignant, even if a touch over-wrought here and there, but the last section just seemed to take some oomph out of the story.  I understand that Jones was trying to wrap it up and return full circle to Matlida writing the story we are finishing.  But to me her time in London just doesn’t have the same impact as the other sections.  It feels like he is trying a little to hard to make the connections here.

But that aside, the book really is a powerful story.  To risk a cliche, it has a simplicity that belies the complexity below the surface.  It deals with powerful forces and emotions but rarely gets carried away.

Allow again to steel someone’s summation, this from Complete Review:

The reason the novel works particularly well lies in the tone. It is not the teen Matilda that writes the account, but rather the university student Matilda, now far removed from Bougainville. “I have tried not to embellish”, she says, and it is this lack of embellishment, the (deceptive) simplicity of the presentation, that makes it so utterly compelling. The living conditions on the island are as basic as can be imagined (or, arguably, even more basic that most readers of this book likely can imagine) but Matilda doesn’t dwell on this. It’s just a given, like so much else — just as the world often seems to children, who accept whatever the conditions are without a real sense of what alternatives there are. The Dickensian alternative they are presented with is, of course, beyond foreign and yet something they can also relate to — but again, Jones doesn’t force the issue.

I think this is quite correct.  The novel gets the tone just right, from Matilda’s perspective to the other islander’s interactions.

I am not sure I have captured much here or come to any strong conclusions.  I enjoyed the book and recommened it (not to the faint of heart, however, as it contains some brutal, if poigant, sections).  But I am still not quite sure what to make of it.  The Aulstralian had a nice point on this, so I will allow them the last word:

Mister Pip’s twists and turns, and use of Dickens’s novel, are ingenious. But it is hard to know what to make of it. So much rests on Jones’s tone, which is deceptively simple but accrues the uneasy ambiguity of Conrad’s stories. On the one hand, Mister Pip seems to be a love song to the enduring power of great writing. On the other, it is as insistent as a cultural studies student about readers’ powers to reinterpret texts. It invites sentiment yet gently mocks readers by exaggerating its own tropical colour. It teases us about the bona fides — and ultimate effect — of Mr Watts.

Mister Pip is a post-colonial fable about reading that is as open-ended as a myth.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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