First published in: 2006
This edition: John Murray, 2008
(Beautiful) cover illustration by Petra Borner
Great Expectations cover: detail from Chichester Canal by JMW Turner
Those of you familiar with Charles Dickens can hazard a pretty good guess from the title of Lloyd Jones's 2006 novel what the book could be about. MISTER PIP is, somewhat, about the novel GREAT EXPECTATIONS, published in 1860-61. It's about reading this classic (set in Victorian England, telling the story of an orphaned white boy named Pip) when you're a 9 year-old black girl living on an island in the Pacific during a civil war.Matilda is that girl, and along with other children on the war-torn island she is taught about Pip's world by their teacher Mr. Watts, the only white person on the island.
I figured when I got MISTER PIP that by the time I'd read it I would have long since read GREAT EXPECTATIONS. That's a negatory. I haven't read it, even though I do own a copy (which is the oldest unread book on the TBR-pile). Dickens just isn't my bag. Maybe when I'm older, better read than I am now… but until then…
When I read MISTER PIP anyway, I did find myself wondering at times if I shouldn't have waited until I'd read – in a future far far away – GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
Because MISTER PIP wasn't easy to read. I couldn't always find that click with this story, and while this improves as I continued on, I asked myself: had I been going about this one the right way?
While I didn't get all of the references to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I eventually realized that it's not about GREAT EXPECTATIONS itself as it is about the general reading experience which we, readers, have. Not having read GREAT EXPECTATIONS did make me feel closer, actually, to Matilda. We were both new to this book, both discovering the story and getting to know Pip.
There's a fabulous meta element to MISTER PIP, as Mr. Watts gives these children something very precious; the gift of reading, the gift of stories. He allows his pupils to do what a lot of readers do: escape into different worlds, times and lives. Matilda escapes in Victorian England, Matilda escapes in a boy named Pip.
…and I in turn escape in Matilda, in Mr. Watts's class in Bougainville.
Bougainville, the story's location, is the biggest of Papua New Guinea's islands. As I read MISTER PIP, I found myself eager to learn more about this place and its history – specifically that time during which Matilda's story takes place, in the 1990's. Jones made it that interesting.
Despite finding out about some of the specifics such as time and place, MISTER PIP has a certain timelessness to it, a nostalgic feeling. It could take place any time, really. Jones has a flair for creating a fitting atmosphere, a beautiful one.
Add to that the classroom sessions – quirky, cute and endearing – and you've got a jewel of a book, setting wise.
But Lloyd Jones reminds you, "don't get too taken by this place. Understand that these children are children, naive beings. The real place is harsh, it's cruel." He keeps dropping hints; a heavy sense of foreboding is woven into the story. But the magic of Matilda's world, of her Pip, they distract you. I was taken by Mr. Watts's classes, his teaching methods and his regard for the children, their regard for him. MISTER PIP is not overly sentimental, nor is it one of those typical "teacher teaches, children overcome and triumph" stories. Mr. Watts is a self-appointed teacher, the best alternative to a real teacher that these kids even have. There's the mutual regard. Matilda clearly respects Mr. Watts (and Dickens).
Endearing scenes like having the mothers share island tips, like how to predict what the weather will be like by how crabs are using their hidey-holes (covered in sand, halfway in), only charm you further.
Until the redskins interrupt your reverie and you're reminded again of where we're at. An island in the middle of a civil war.
Even though I was completely mesmerized at times, I did have (obvious pun) greater expectations regarding the plot and story itself. And perhaps also the writing. I've read THE BOOK OF FAME, a book on sports, and Jones's prose impressed me more, there.
The story generally couldn't always hold my attention as well. There were moments I was completely taken by the writing, moments where I felt my grip on the story was wavering. Or, the story's grip on me.
Maybe because of the matter-of-factness in which Matilda tells us her story, leaving little room for emotion. I often felt it was narrated in a very detached manner. On the other hand, more emotion could have easily made MISTER PIP overly sentimental – and I do prefer to "feel things for myself" at times. This book does allow you, after all, to feel a lot despite its tone.
I don't think not-having-read GREAT EXPECTATIONS had anything to do with the trouble I had with this book sometimes. I think it was because of what I mentioned some paragraphs ago: "the redskins interrupt your reverie".
The subject just <i>is</i> hard to read. How can it not be? (Would I have preferred it to be easy? No.)
…some events really knock you off your feet; they're unexpected because the rest of the book is so, so gentle. Some scenes are highly upsetting. But those scenes – and the unexpected turn(s) of events, the effect of being hit in the gut upon reading them – make the book good.
Often I'd read reviews of people who'd judge a book as "horrible, ugh, one star tops!" because it made for uncomfortable reading, or it had an unhappy ending, or the reader would take offense at curse words. That's not how I judge a book. If a book hits me, if I still think about it sometimes after finishing, if feel joy or fear for "my" characters… That's when I feel a book – despite discomfort, despite cruelty – has a good chance of being dubbed "a good book" by yours truly. Other things factor in too, of course.
MISTER PIP's most valued factor is those classroom moments with Mr. Watts and the kids. Their interactions, their love of reading kept me reading as I struggled through some of the pages. It's the regard these particular characters had for one and other, that affected me, that I take with me. It's the love of reading and being reminded of the endless possibilities that make me say that MISTER PIP, despite its bad events, despite discomfort, despite an occasional wavering in my attention span, is a good book.
– Beautiful setting; timeless feel to it
– Interactions between characters Mr. Watts & pupils wonderful
– Doesn't shy away from describing events related to civil war
– Narration a bit detached at times; hard to 'feel' the story sometimes.
Update took a while, had to prioritize photography clients 🙂
Next up for review: Generation X by Douglas Coupland and The Hunger Games part 1 by Suzanne Collins!