By Lloyd Jones
Mister Pip is the kind of book one expects to do well with critics, and these expectations have not been disappointed. In addition to receiving strong reviews it won the 2007 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and made the shortlist for the Man Booker.
Why is it so popular with critics? Because it’s a book about books. Specifically it is a book about the effect reading Great Expectations has on the inhabitants of a small village on the remote island of Bougainville, which is part of Papua New Guinea. The story is set in the early 1990s and Bougainville is in the grip of a civil war between the “redskins” and the rebels. The narrator is a thirteen-year-old girl named Matilda. When the war begins all of the white people leave the island except for one. Mr. Watts, or Pop Eye as he is known to the villagers, stays behind, married to a mentally ill native woman he pulls around in a cart while wearing a clown’s nose. The reason for this is unclear.
When the war starts Mr. Watts cleans up the old schoolhouse and begins teaching the village children, mainly by reading “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century” aloud to them. His students are, of course, entranced. And Jones is wonderful in his evocation of the magic power of literature – the process of transubstantiation whereby we both transform what we read and are transformed by it. By means of the same magic Dickens’s Pip becomes a composite figure newly written into the tropical landscape.
Which, in turn, triggers a series of unfortunate events leading to a shattering conclusion that leaves Matilda, years later, picking up the pieces and attempting to make sense of it all.
Mister Pip is not a long book and the writing is, unlike a lot of critical favourites, refreshingly clear and economical. Bougainville is brought to life in small, understated touches and precise capturings of tone. Matilda’s voice is distinct without being over-inflected with island vernacular, moving with the rhythms of the expressively laconic residents of her village. The brevity and simple grace of the language, however, can also come across as pat. Matilda’s understatement and lack of affect in the face of violence is almost too curt and deliberate. Mr. Watts remains a mystery whose motivations are difficult to understand or relate to. And the story relates a rather conventional, at times almost patronizing message.
Review first published October 20, 2007.