Posted by: chartroose | March 10, 2009

Mister Pip

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




  1. How can you not love a book that is so well written it inspires you to learn more? Fantastic review. You’ve made me want to read the book to learn more too.

  2. Here is the black-hearted me making an appearance: Yes, I think Americans are severely undereducated about the world. And, unfortunately, I don’t think very many of them realize it or care. We’re a very self-absorbed lot, more interested in reality TV and sensationalist “news” programs than real learning. Um, I think I’ll hop down now before I get myself in trouble. 🙂

    I, too, love books like this that open my eyes. They’re difficult and liberating at the same time. I love the extra info you included!


  3. Really wonderful review. I picked this up last year and I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. But it’s going near to the top of the pile now.

  4. I think we’re bizarrely sheltered in the U.S. and probably a great portion of Americans don’t care, as Lezlie mentioned, but I can’t help but wonder if that would truly be the case if we actually heard and viewed world news in the same manner as Europeans. What we receive is filtered, often inflammatory and severely limited. It’s kind of depressing. But, yep, books are a great way to learn about the world.

  5. I think it’s really weird that we don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world since we’re all more or less from that world. Kids not caring what’s happening w/the folks back home kind of thing?

    But I do like the idea of broadened horizons via novels and Mr. Pip sounds like an excellent read.

  6. I do remember hearing about Bougainville, mainly because there were quite a few Australians involved in the mining at the time, and I guess because of its proximity to us.

    When I first got this, for some reason I thought it was set in WWII, so it was interesting to discover that it wasn’t and then to read a very interesting and thought provoking book that touched on so many different issues.

  7. This sounds like a wonderful novel. I’ll be sure to check it out.

  8. Excellent post Chartroose. I too thought this was set in WWII, so getting that clarification was helpful. This book is already on my TBR list but I’ll have to move it closer to the top now.

    Also, I loved the photos! My in-laws visited some missionary friends in Papua New Guinea last year and their photos look a lot like yours. 🙂

  9. Great review, I love that this book inspired you to do some research of your own on the topic. That’s a sign of a book that leaves a lasting impression.

    Don’t even get me started on what should be taught in schools though. My kids are not learning anything valuable world history wise. I think it’s worse being in Canadian schools which hardly cover anything outside our own history. But what makes me really mad is teachers who decide what takes priority. For example, my son is in grade 6 and for the first time ever they were to spend 2 months researching WW2 – not just reading Anne Frank but finding out how different countries were affected (effected?) I was so happy to hear this. But then Obama won the presidency and WW2 simply did not merit their time and instead they were assigned projects including research on Obama’s personal life and what this means to the world. I was furious! How can our kids make educated guesses at the future if they know nothing of the past? So my son is now researching WW2 in his spare time. I’ve got a good kid, but how many other kids are doing this? IMO not too many.

  10. I´ve just read Mister Pip twice and it is so touching. I thought at first that the choice of making the narrative through the voice of a young girl would soften somehow the horros of the war they were living in but it didn´t. To be in the skin of Dolores as I am a mother and also in the skin of Mr Watts as I am also a teacher was such interesting experience.

    Rose Gimenes
    São Paulo – Brasil

  11. I do hope people in Bougainsville have finally achieved some peace and their kids can go to school and have a normal life by now. I also respect immensely the history of their rebels who gave to their island the only and most important thing they had, their lives. I´d like also to thank lloyd Jones for such brilliant work as Mister Pip.

    Rose Gimenes
    São Paulo – Brasil

  12. I found your review through Heather J. — I read this book and felt the same way about it that you did — Loved it. Thanks for including some of the background!

  13. I just read this book and loved it. Thank you for writing a brilliant review – I would love to discuss more in depth the symbolism you mentioned. 🙂

  14. [mp3] acclaimed book reviewer Robert Adams discusses Man Booker Prize winning novel Mister Pip by NZ author Lloyd Jones

    Robt Adams: a gift to the reading world & a superb delight to listen to… Pip is about Bougainville, PNG, Cu mines, & storytelling – superb!!!!

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