Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mister Pip

When I decided to start a book blog, I wanted to write about the books that worm their way into your everyday life. Of all the books I've read, Lloyd Jones novel Mister Pip might demonstrate that side of literature – the side that is all-encompassing, that draws you in and makes you feel like you know the characters as if you are a part of their world as much they've become a part of yours – better than anything I've ever read.

Mister Pip is set on a small island in the South Pacific in the early '90s. The island, which used to be home to a major mining operation, has fallen into a kind of civil war, with the "red skins" (an army from an undisclosed country) fighting the rebels. Jones focuses his story on one village on the island, which sounds pretty primitive in terms of its amenities (a collection of houses and a school building) but has enough to keep the residents happy.

When the story opens, the school has just been closed. Our narrator, Matilda (about 11 at the beginning of the story) is not lamenting this fact. In fact, she enjoys the freedom. So when her mum tells her that Mr. Watts - also known to the villagers as Pop Eye - the only white man in the town, is going to start teaching, she isn't sure what to expect. Mr. Watts isn't particularly qualified to be a teacher, so rather than try to give them lessons in math and science, he reads them Charles' Dickens Great Expectations. Because the story takes place in a world that the children have never experienced, Mr. Watts teaches them how to use their imagination. He asks them to close their eyes and say their name, just in their head. No one else can say your name like that, he tells them, explaining that Dickens (Mr. Dickens to all concerned here) did that until he could find Pip's voice and that they can do that to see England.

Mr. Watts doles out the novel one chapter each day. To fill in lesson time, he invites the mothers and grandmothers of the students to come in and tell them about things they know. One woman comes in to talk to the children about the colour blue; another recites recipes; Matilda's mother, who does not approve of Great Expectations, nor her daughter's infatuation with Pip, is a frequent visitor to the class. Dolores and Matilda have a strained relationship, and Dolores blames Mr. Watts for that. Matilda would rather hear about Pip than Jesus, and Dolores is a religious woman who resents Mr. Watts influence over her daughter.

After Mr. Watts reads the book to the class once, he goes back to the beginning and reads it to them again. The class reads it all the way through more than three times before disaster strikes.

The red skin army descend on the village. They make everyone line up and give their names. At first, they seem not so bad. But then a soldier discovers Matilda's shrine to Pip on the beach. Who is Pip, the army commander demands. Where are you hiding Pip? The children explain that Pip belongs to Mr. Dickens and Mr. Watts (who the army now think is Mr. Dickens) explains that Pip is a character in a book. But when Matilda runs to the school building to retrieve the book and clear up the confusion, it isn't there. So, in retaliation, the army ransacks all the homes in the village and burn everyone's possessions. Then they leave, saying they will be back and Pip had better be there.

In the meantime, Mr. Watts tries to keep moral up among the students. He tells them that if they can't read the book, they will have to recreate it through memory. He charges the children that they are responsible for making sure Dickens' masterpiece isn't forgotten. Of course, when the army returns, there is no Pip. So the army burns down their homes. And, without giving everything away, things go from bad to worse for the villagers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mister Pip is how Jones puts you in exactly the same place as the villagers. Like them, and especially like Matilda and the other children, you know the situation on the island isn't good, but you have no concept of how bad it is. Like the children, you are shielded from reality by their fixation on Great Expectations. As the book moves farther and farther from their lives, your view on the violence occurring around them broadens. I don't want to give everything away, but the last 50 or so pages are shocking.

I thought I was reading Mister Pip because I needed a lighter book. I was wrong. Jones' story is incredibly compelling and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The characters are wonderfully described and as a storyteller, Jones has serious guts. He isn't afraid to tell a story that might not be comfortable, but is nonetheless stunning. And, if you ever needed to be reminded of the power of literature, this book will do that for you.


  1. sounds good. is an encyclopedic knowledge of Great Expectations necessary to enjoy it?

  2. Not in the least! I have never actually read Great Expectations (although I sort-of know the story) and I didn't feel like that held me back at all.

  3. When it comes to books, not much I suppose.


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