Mister Pip

In Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, it is the 1990s and war has arrived on the Papua New Guinea island of Bourganville. Its presence has cast the village, where 13-year old Matilda lives, into a primitive state of nature. A blockade is in place, everyone who was able to leave has departed, and only a handful of locals remain, anxiously watching the escalating conflict between the rebel forces (the ‘rambos’) and the government soldiers (the ‘redskins). Only one white man remains, the mysterious Mr Watts, otherwise known as Popeye, who is best known in the community as a harmless eccentric who drags his native wife around in a trolley. As an act asserting what is best in mankind, or maybe simply as a distraction, Mr Watts reopens the local school and collects together the local children for unusual lessons. The incentive for attendance is Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, which he is reading to them a chapter a day. The book casts its spell over Matilda, who falls for the imaginative escape literature provides, in the form of distant misty marshes, convicts on the loose and the perplexed Pip, destined despite himself to be a gentleman. Little does she know, however, how much trouble this primitive introduction to literature is going to cause.

Matilda lives with her mother, her father having departed to Townsville (Australia) four years ago in search of better employment. When Mr Watts starts inviting the parents of the children into the classroom to share their accumulated wisdom, he gets more than he bargains for with Matilda’s mother. In essence the story sets up a conflict of pedagogy: on the one hand there’s the genial Mr Watts, whose style of teaching is polite, respectful, secular and inclusive; on the other there’s Matilda’s mother, who fiercely refutes any story that does not have its origins in the bible, and whose teaching method is deeply traditional, domineering and one-dimensional.  Matilda loves her mother, but she’s ashamed for her, and torn in her loyalties. There’s a sense that Matilda is ripe for a strong paternal figure of authority on whom to depend, her absent father rarely receiving a good write-up in her mother’s tales. Anyhow, her mother’s stubbornness, provoked essentially because Mr Watts understands the devil only as a symbol, rather than the living apparition her superstitious ideology deems him to be, leads to a second war being fought on the island  – a war for control over the children’s minds.

Inevitably the two conflicts start to overlap. Matilda creates a shrine to Pip on the beach, spelling out his name with shells, and when the Redskins come to the village, they mistake the fictional character for a real person who they assume to be a rebel in hiding. The single copy of Dicken’s novel that could prove Pip’s fictionality, has gone mysteriously missing, and only after the Redskins have exacted a terrible punishment on the village does Matilda find it, rolled up amongst her father’s belongings where her mother has hidden it. From this point on, fiction and reality will clash repeatedly and violently, the Redskin’s determination that Pip is an inhabitant of the village leading to escalating atrocities. Against a backdrop of fear and anxiety, Mr Watts tries to maintain the children’s education, encouraging the children to recreate Dickens’ novel from their memories, as if to keep them in touch with the soothing and regenerative power of the imagination, and to prevent the merging of the fictional universe with the false assumptions of the Redskins.

But eventually fiction and reality come together again; this time as storytelling becomes the sole means of survival. Mr Watts, who over the course of the narrative has been both idolized and reviled by the local community ends up trying to save them all by taking on the role of Scheherezade. Over the course of seven nights in which he tries to buy a stay of violence, he tells what he initially describes as the story of his life, but which turns out to be a lyrical hotchpotch, combining Pip’s story with the anecdotal wisdom imparted by the children’s parents as well as autobiographical information. This strange, hybrid narrative can be read as a sort of template for postcolonial fiction, in which traditional and contemporary structures collide and create something quite new, quite different. This brave move on Mr Watts’ part almost works, but the subsequent catastrophe raises the level of violence to a new level and exacts a terrible human price. I will tell you that I wept shamelessly at this point.

I’ll try not to give anything more away with regard to the plot. What I can say, however, is that Mister Pip poses some pertinent questions about the way we use stories and storytelling as a form of education. The role of stories changes several times over the course of the narrative, but their presence is always understood to be a calming, enlightening one that puts human beings in their best selves. Storytelling stands in distinct contrast to violence, which takes place in silence and out of willed ignorance. Whilst the Rambos are portrayed as little more than bewildered boys, hiding out in the woods with their faces painted, the Redskins represent organized and merciless violence. Their leader resolutely refuses to listen to what people say to him, asks the kind of questions that can only be met with misleading answers, and has no inclination or indeed capacity for empathy, imagination or understanding. Matilda’s mother is guilty of this state of mind, too, and her own part in triggering the worst of the conflict reveals her dangerous mental limitations. However, if stories are held up as what is most civilized and hopeful about the human race, the novel is keen to make and uphold a further important distinction between fiction and reality. The last thirty or so pages of the book show Matilda in a very different place and time, finding out the truth about Mr Watts. Some reviewers have been inclined to dismiss this coda as out of place or misguided, but it struck me as an important, if very different element of the narrative. Reality is often disappointing compared to fiction, but any decent education must necessarily include the puncturing of illusions, however uncomfortable the experience might be.

This is a gripping novel, beautifully written, with strong and compelling themes. It was interesting to note that Lloyd Jones was a journalist who covered the war in Papua New Guinea and so is writing, informed at least in part, from his own experience. Somehow, in a story that plays with reality and illusion, it seemed important to me to know that this brave and yet brutal novel was grounded in truth.

25 thoughts on “Mister Pip

  1. I so loved this book. When I saw you were going to discuss it, I borrowed it from the library and read it over last weekend. From the very first few pages, I knew Lloyd Jones had me. At Easter dinner, the topic of conversation around the table inevitably turned to books. I had just finished Mister Pip that morning and insisted everyone needed to read it. Like you, Litlove, I was struck by how powerful storytelling can be – for living in both the real world, and in the world of the imagination. It was wonderful how the parents were invited into the schoolroom to teach what they knew, or thought they knew. Imagine a lesson on the color blue! Lloyd doesn’t hold back on any of the grittier emotions, either. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone by saying too much more, but this book really covered the best and the worst in the human spirit. Thanks for leading me to it.

  2. Hi, not sure if you’ll get this comment but wanted to add that you’ve convinced me to read it. (If you ever needed another sideline, you could always market books!) I also remember reading mixed reviews but I love the sound of this one.

  3. This sounds like a book I would love. It’s been hovering round the background of my mind for some time, but your lovely review means I’ll have to read it. The Dickens’ connections appeal of course. I can already sense the linking strands: the education of a child in an unexpected and alien manner, like Pip’s becoming a gentleman; the struggle between two traditions, amplified by civil war, the whole notion of one culture which is impinged on by another; racial and colonial issues; the importance of story to self and being. I shall be interested to see how these play out. Thanks.

  4. I am so glad to hear you liked the book since I have a recently acquired copy waiting to be read. I think after your review I must move it up to the top of the pile!

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. I fell in love with it when I first read it. In fact, I read it shortly after reading Great Expectations, which made it even better for me. It does showcase the power of storytelling quite well.

  6. Ditto everything Bookboxed said. Straight to the wishlist now. I’m glad, too; it sounded good back when it was on the Booker longlist but I hadn’t heard much since.

  7. I really enjoyed this book when I read it, although I was uncomfortable with the ending. Not the coda you mention, I agree with how it fit into the structure of the novel – what I had trouble with was the severity of that last big event on the island. I had a hard time reconciling the enormity of what happens with the tone of the rest of the book. But I definitely want to read more Lloyd Jones, I loved the writing.

  8. Well, that’s a strong recommendation from you and from your commenters! It’s great to read novels that deal with storytelling — I really enjoy that kind of self-reflexivity.

  9. I want to read this book, but if you wept shamelessly, I’m done for, too. Still, sometimes it’s worth it if the story is really good, which it sounds. I’m going to add it to my wishlist. On a totally different note–have you read Jean Rhys? Just curious as I’m starting to hear about the new biography of her. I’ve not read much of her work but am intrigued by her and I have a feeling if you’ve read her–you probably have some good insights to her life and work.

  10. Oh my goodness. This is such an unusual premise for a story! It sounds like a great read (though I know I will cry). I like the Dickens connection, as he was one of my first loves – and books about books, if done right, are so fabulous.
    Thanks for the tip. This will go on the summer reading stack.

  11. Grad – knowing you’d read it was a marvellous incentive to getting my review out! So glad you loved it – so did I. And what you say about the best and worst of the human spirit is absolutely true.

    Lilian – I’d love to know what you think of it. It has a quality to it that is mythologizing and and yet also real that I think you might enjoy.

    Bookboxed – I would warmly recommend this to you. Being a Dicken’s man you would get so much out of the comparison with Great Expectations (as you are already doing, even in anticipation!). And it is well worth a read in any case.

    Stefanie – I thought I spied the post which said you had a copy of this! I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Lisa – So glad that you loved it too! Showcasing the power of storytelling is a beautiful way to express its aims.

    Nicole – I would love to know what you think of it if you read it. You’re right it sort of went quiet after the Booker. I’m hoping to see more of Lloyd Jones’ books in print now.

    Verbivore – I can quite see why you would say that. The last part on the island is very hard to take, although I felt compelled to read it. I suppose that’s why I wanted to know whether Jones was writing from some level of experience or not. So often books tone down real life because it only looks plausible that way.

    Danielle – I’d love to know what you think of it – bring tissues, though! As for Jean Rhys, do you know, I haven’t ever read her. I’d love to read Wide Sargasso Sea, though, as I’ve heard so much about it. And I’d also love to read the biography that’s come out. There’s a good project for the summer, right?

    Qugrainne – I would love to know what you think of it if you read it. I do think that any familiarity with Dickens is a positive help in reading this book. You could manage fine without, but knowing the story of Great Expectations adds another layer of meaning to an already rich story.

    Dorothy – I agree – I love books about storytelling. Now you’ve said that, I want someone to write me out a list of them – Danielle? Are you up for that?

  12. Pingback: Best Book Club Books « Tales from the Reading Room

  13. This book is truly sublime. I had it assigned to me, to read for school, but I am ecstatic that it has come into my world. I have NEVER been a reader but Muster Pip is something different. I’m a New Zealander like Lloyd Jones so I hope his phone number is in the telephone pages so I could personally thank him. I had to share how amazing this book really is!

  14. I am preparing my research paper on Mister Pip. However, because it is written recently (2006), i cannot find any references, and my only source is these review articles. The problem is that many of these articles are anonymous,like this one, so i cannot quote from it. could the one who has written this great review, be generous enough and provide me with his/her name, so that i could be able to insert it in my research paper. It is really important for me. Thanks a lot.

  15. Pingback: Book Review: Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip - Opinionless

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