Lloyd Jones, 2007, 272 p.
I can see why Mister Pip won Australia’s Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2007 (and was shortlisted for the Booker). This little novel is a beauty, and I was mesmerized from beginning to end. One of the things I loved most about Mister Pip was its historical context. Lloyd Jones wrote about an event I had never paid any attention to at all: the blockade of Bougainville island by Papua New Guinea during the early 1990’s. The story is about those who were left behind after Bougainville’s more prominent citizens fled to the safety of Australia and New Zealand. While I was reading, my ignorance saddened me. Many horrible and terrifying events have occurred all over this planet and I know almost nothing about them. I think Americans are notoriously undereducated about the world, don’t you? I don’t know how to fix this for everyone, but I do know how to fix it for myself: I’ll read more novels like Mister Pip!
The novel is narrated by a young woman named Matilda, who recounts that awful time in the island’s history when almost everyone is gone and all that are left are native women and children and a few rebels fighting off in the distance. Her village does have one white inhabitant–a bug-eyed gentleman named Mr. Watts. Now that eveything has settled down a bit, Mr. Watts agrees to start up the school again, and, for want of any educational materials, he begins reading (and teaching) Great Expectations.
The students love the novel, even though they have no real understanding of the world inhabited by Dicken’s characters. When the novel disappears, Mr. Watts asks them to recount Great Expectations in their own words, so they begin to retell it from their perspective. The war eventually comes to their village and terrible tragedies occur, but Matilda never forgets Mr. Watts and how he made the world of Dickens become an essential part of village life. Great Expectations instilled such a sense of wonder and curiousity in Matilda that she grew up to be a well-educated and successful adult.
The marvelous thing about this novel is that it has so many layers, and as you peel them back, you begin to find more and more hidden meanings underneath. I don’t think I’ve read a book with so much symbolism since my college days, when I wrote a paper on the underlying religiousity of The Old Man and the Sea. On the surface, Mister Pip is a coming-of-age tale about a terrible time in a young girl’s life. If you dig a little deeper, the novel is about jealousy, racism, isolation and ignorance. If you get all the way down into the guts of the story, you find that Jones is also talking about the capability of storytelling to create and destroy, just as man does. We procreate and we murder. We build beautiful monuments, but we destroy nature in the process. We build beautiful stories, but they in turn destroy the truth. And what is truth anyway? Every truth is a fiction, isn’t it?
This novel should be taught in schools. It, along with other classics, like Lord of the Flies, should be taught to teens. I think they’d really appreciate it.
If I’m enthralled with a novel, I often feel the need to look up its setting or history. For Mister Pip, I looked up some general information on Bougainville island. Here are some pictures of the people and the place:
Do you notice the proximity to Guadalcanal? The Japanese and the Americans fought on Bougainville’s soil during WWII as well.
Bougainville Revolutionary Army Guerillas