February 28, 2011
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
In a nutshell?
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.
In a nutshell
- 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!
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2010 and beyond.
January 8, 2010
I've been sick for a while but I'm finally starting to get better! Not 100% there yet but there is improvement. I'm happy… Starting the new year sick is no way to go!
The Book of Fame
First published in: 2008
This edition: John Murray, 2008
Cover design: N/A
I don't believe the All Blacks actually use the throat gesture anymore.
But I couldn't resist.
I'm not much for sports really. I played some tennis when I was younger, but most of my other extracurricular activities included ballet and drama. I watched skating at times, but only because one of the country's former top skaters is a distant relative and I kind of liked rooting for the guy. But I can't say I really care about sports. So why did I pick up a book about a sports team? A book describing games, wins, tactics?
Because this book was about the New Zealand All Blacks. Now that's a country and a team I have a recent weakness for (ever since visiting the country, ever since watching the team on TV performing their haka warrior dance). Because of the subject, I expected to like this book; I did not expect that I would end up falling in love with it. It wasn't love at first sight, but the kind of love that grows.
In a dazzling style of prose which I can only describe as poetic, New Zealand author Lloyd Jones (known better as the author of Mister Pip) combines fiction and historical facts in this wonderful story of how the All Blacks won the public's respect and love. Following the team through their tour across the UK in 1905, the reader gets a sort of insider's scoop into how these lads played won games, and along with it all, gained their fame.
And although this is definitely a book about sports in itself – offense! defense! scores, injuries, plays & tactics – The Book of Fame lives up to its title, and becomes mostly a study of what it's like to become famous, unexpectedly and wholly.
The All Blacks, back in the day, was made up of farmers, miners, a banker here and there, a bootmaker. Diverse people, but most importantly: just average blokes enjoying their game. They don't know what hits them when suddenly, they are recognized on the streets, cheered on by strangers, adored by women who want nothing more than to marry them… They came to the UK to play rugby. What they got was something else altogether. The Book of Fame is about triumph and the beginning of something grand and everlasting. (But it's also about the exhaustion, the inability to go anywhere in peace and quiet.)
There's a sense of excitement and anticipation, and the men are definitely appreciative by all the support at first (and tired by all of it later; fame has its downsides) – but they also remain the way they were before. An example of the general attitude: when the team captain Gallaher is asked what it is like to be famous, he dryly replies, "The pyramids are famous, son".
These are normal men. Lloyd Jones describes them as they nervously empty their bladders before a match, as they see themselves projected in film for the first time (magic!). The individual player's quirks and habits are described – there are so many i's in one team, so many different individuals to get to know, but you do feel connected to the team from the start.
What helps is the narrative style; the story of this team is told by one of the team members, although we never learn which one it is. It could be any one of them. The team is telling the story. This is a very effective strategy, because it adds to the feeling that the reader is on this journey with them. The reader, by getting to know the team members up close via small details, could be part of the 'we'. That's how it feels. That's the charm of the book.
These men, they are real men, but in a way I felt like hugging them all. Their fame made them feel so small at times, boyish; there is a downside to fame and these men felt it rather quickly. They're away from home. One team, together – but alone – on a journey. Traveling to places previously unseen, experiencing things previously unknown (food is an example; menus are shared in the book at times). They never once expected that they would be there, and then, as they were little boys growing up.
But there, and then, the now grown-up men ache for one thing more than anything: their home country, New Zealand. Their fame could never top their home. Perhaps this international journey in 1905 with all the stress attached to it has also provided the early All Blacks with the inspiration and motivation to get stronger – and stay stronger. I don't know the team today. I haven't read a book about them. But part of me likes to believe the current All Blacks are still playing for home.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2010 and beyond.