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.