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Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip

This novel was favourite to win The Man Booker Prize in 2007 though, in the end, Anne Enright won it. I am not going to compare the two but would just say that this book would have been a worthy winner.

Commentators have focused on the Charles Dickens aspect, given that the reading of Great Expectations and the title indicate that this is what the book is about. The Dickens aspect is certainly key to the book but by no means not all that this book is about. The entire novel is set on Bougainville Island, an offshore island, part of Papua New Guinea. The action takes place during the struggle of the island for independence. At the beginning of the novel, the island is under blockade. All but one of the white men have left the island. Rebels operate against the Papua New Guineans (known to the islanders as redskins), who are shown to be brutal and repressive, though the rebels can also be brutal. The book is narrated by Matilda who, for most of the novel, is thirteen. She lives with her mother, Dolores, as her father has managed to get off the island, before it is blockaded, to get a job in Australia. Fortunately the island is very fertile so, though many of their luxuries (including, of course, electricity) have gone, they are able to survive on their crops, fruit and fish.

As the blockade starts the children have no school. There is only one white man on the island. He is Mr. Watts, known to all as Pop Eye. He is married to Grace, who was originally from the island but has managed to get off and get a job and returned with Mr. Watts. He pulls Grace around in a cart, sometimes wearing a red clown nose. (We learn the whole story of Mr. Watts and Grace right at the end.) Once the blockade starts, he volunteers to teach the children, though he has no experience of teaching. When the children arrive at the class, they find, somewhat to their surprise, that they are to meet Mr. Dickens. They have no idea who Mr. Dickens is and are mystified, as there is no other white man there. When they come to the first class, they learn that Mr. Dickens is the author of a book – Great Expectations – and that Mr. Watts’ class is to consist of reading a chapter a day from this book. They are allowed to ask questions – which they do – but, despite the difficulties of vocabulary (words from rime to lawyer give them problems) and the cultural differences between late twentieth century Bougainville and mid-nineteenth century London – they gradually get involved in the story.

Mr. Watts is not monolithic. He invites the various adults, one by one, to impart their various types of wisdom, from how to catch a certain type of fish to the meaning of the colour blue. Mr. Watts gives them free rein even when he disagrees with them, as is the case with Matilda’s mother, Dolores, on topics such as religion. Matilda, whose eyes we see this through, is particularly enamoured with the story and with Pip, so much so much that she writes his name in the sand using stones. Matilda and her fellow pupils also learn certain values from the novel. More particularly, they learn, both from Dickens and from the adults who tells their stories, the power of the imagination and story-telling.

This would have been a fine story as it is but there is the extra element of the political situation. The village is visited both by the rebels and the redskins. All the young men from the village have gone off to join the rebels, leaving only the women, children, old men and Mr. Watts. When the redskins arrive one time, they notice the lack of young men. They also see the name Pip written in the sand by Matilda and want to know who he is. Mr. Watts confesses to being Mr. Dickens but no-one will say who Pip is, till Mr. Watts reveals that Pip is a character from a book. They ask for proof but when a young boy is sent to fetch the book from the school, it has disappeared. (We later learn that Dolores, who is both jealous of Mr. Watts’ hold over her daughter and his seemingly anti-religious approach, has hidden the book.) The redskins vow that they will return and that the village better produce Mr. Pip. In the meantime, they destroy much of the remaining property of the village, as a warning. When they do return and there is still no Pip, they burn all the houses.

The next visit is from the rebels, known as the rambos. They want to know who Mr. Watts is and he promises to tell them but says it will take seven nights and he must not be interrupted. He starts to tell his story, mingling in elements of Dickens. The story is interpreted by Matilda for the rambos, whose English is poor, and she has difficulty with some of the cultural references but manages to get round most of them. The rambos love the story and Mr. Watts tells it in a most colourful way. However, Mr. Watts cannot finish his story as the rambos have to leave and the redskins return. Mr. Watts takes on the mantle of Mr. Pip and the redskins’ retribution against him and the village is furious. Matilda manages to escape the island and has a successful career and life away from Bougainville.

The beauty of this novel is to tell of the power of story-telling and the power of the imagination. The story-telling can be something as remote (for the Bougainvilleans) as Dickens and something as picturesque as the little tales of the women on the island. It is clearly juxtaposed with the violence of the rambos and redskins and, while it may be somewhat obvious that imagination and story-telling are worthier than violence and killing, Jones does not make this mawkish or simplistic but, rather, he himself tells such a wonderful story that his thesis can only be confirmed.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Text Publishing Company, Melbourne