Friday 13 April 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Mr Pip (Lloyd Jones)

Most evenings, I glance at the news, at stories about places where horrendous things are happening and people have lost everything. I make a flimsy effort to conceive of the significance of that story.

Then I go to bed and read a chapter of the book I’m reading. I say a chapter, but if it’s good, and there’s a bit of a cliff-hanger ending to that chapter, I’ll read another, and maybe even another.

Mr Pip is set on a tropical island where people have lost everything and horrendous things are happening.

The sing-song voice of our narrator, the teenager Matilda, gives the setting a dream-like quality. As she describes the sea and the heat and the sand on the island, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, there is a sense of the beauty of the place, and of it having been forgotten.

It is the mid-1990s and a blockade is in place on the copper-rich island. All the generators are empty and the teachers have fled.

The only white man left in Matilda’s village, Mr Watts, offers to teach the children in the abandoned school, and he does so with the only book left in there – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Matilda soon becomes completely hooked on the book. Dickens’ legendary suspense keeps her captivated by Mr Watt’s lessons, and she quickly works out how many weeks it will take them to read the book and find out what happens in the end.

Through the book, Mr Watts offers the children another world to escape to, and a character to identify with – Pip.

This experience becomes the defining one of Matilda’s life. Her relationship with Mr Watts, and through him Pip, survives all others and in fact saves her life on at least one occasion.

There is a playing with and blurring of lines between writer, narrator and character. When Mr Watts first reveals the book to the children, he says he is going to introduce them to ‘Mr Dickens’, and they believe they are going to meet a real man. Later, when soldiers see the name Pip written in the sand by Matilda, they assume he is a real person and demand to see him. Later still, Mr Watts pretends to be Pip as he weaves a tale to keep tired and deranged rebels under control.

We as readers are distracted by the growing relationship with the story of Great Expectations, and the riddle of Mr Watts himself, that what is happening in Matilda’s real life – the impending threat of the civil war closing in – feels like a series of events, rather than a building of tension.

Because of this, Lloyd Jones is able to shock us when violence and horror land at Matilda’s feet. And the clever conceit is that it is the story of Pip that saves her.

By disrupting conventional story-telling, Jones achieves impressive results. There is no Dickensian device of suspense, but this fable, told in seemingly simple terms, haunts long after reading.

• In choosing to read this book, which has been sitting on my shelf for several years, I thought I was avoiding the best-seller-to-film-version merry-go-round. Then, once I’d finished it, I discovered it has been made into a film! It’s due out this year starring Hugh Laurie as Mr Watts.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I have also posted about Mr Pip. Since you like to read, I wondered if you might be interested in finding out more about cryptic crosswords. This is a link to a post I did recently which looked particularly at clues that involved anagrams. Cryptic Crosswords - Anagrams