To my mind, all novels enter into a larger conversation with all the novels that have come before them. In some instances this is thematic; in others it’s a more direct dialogue. Lloyd Jones’ superbly crafted Mister Pip is one of the latter types, creating a close relationship with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (see my review here). Early on in Mister Pip, our young narrator, Matilda, relates how she feels she was entering into the story of Great Expectations as it is read to her class by the memorable Mr Watts. I understand this beguiling and beautiful pull completely, for I was experiencing the same thing; I was entering into the world of Mister Pip.
And what a world it is. Set against the backdrop of a civil war on Bougainville, Matilda tells the story of her village during the war, and how Mr Watts, the last remaining white man in the village after the blockade, steps in to teach her and the other kids in their school. He is not a teacher, and tells them that he has no wisdom, but he exudes such a presence that the children respond to him. The only book he has at his disposal is Great Expectations, which he describes as “the greatest novel by the greatest writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.” He reads it to the class and Matilda and the others are hooked. She feels as though Pip is a real person, a friend.
Bougainville is a tropical paradise. It is “one of the most fertile places on earth. Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves. Another three months and you are picking its fruit.”
But war transforms this paradise into something of a hell. Trouble descends when the government army come into the town looking for rebels, destroying the villagers’ possessions and homes. Mr Watts is introduced to them as Mr Dickens, and soon the soldiers are trying to find Mister Pip too.
In the aftermath of their visit, Mr Watts tells the children:
… these loses, severe though they may seem, remind us of what no person can take, and that is our minds and our imaginations.
Amen to that.
Acts of violence are never far away, though, and Pip is something of a life-raft to which Matilda clings; (she clings to Mr Jaggers in an unexpected way later in the book too!).
Much to his credit, Mr Watts invites all the children’s parents and family into the class to tell the kids whatever it is they know about life. Here we see Matilda’s God-fearing mother, Dolores, become something of a nemesis to the non-religious Mr Watts. Their tender rivalry is depicted so, so well. Matilda reflects that her mother:
thought she had Mr Watts summed up. She could not see what us kids have come to see: a kind man. She only saw a white man. And white men had stolen her husband and my father. White men were to blame for the [copper] mine, and the blockade. A white man had given us the name of our island. White men had given me my name. By now it was also clear that the white world had forgotten us.
But though Dolores thinks she has the wood on Mr Watts, it is really he who has the measure of her.
Jones construct some sublime moments, including the scene in which Matilda, remembering a fragment of the destroyed Great Expectations rans breathless into Mr Watts’ house in the moment he closes the eyes of his dead wife. The dilemmas that Matilda, her mother, and Mr Watts all face as things race toward the climax are also deftly managed, and the climax when it comes is gripping stuff.
There are wonderful echoes of Great Expectations throughout, in the characters, plot, and even the way the book starts, with Matilda introducing us to Mr Watts by his other name, the name everyone knew him as: Pop Eye – just as Pip introduces himself by his nickname.
Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 (losing to Anne Enright’s The Gathering) and won the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Writers’ prize for best book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific ‘zone’ in the same year.
There is a movie version in the works, with none other than Hugh Laurie (better known as Dr Gregory House) playing the part of Mr Watts. It is due out sometime this year.
Mister Pip speaks to us about how the power of story can triumph in the most appalling of situations. In so doing it becomes a triumph itself, a haunting book that will stay with me long after reading. I wager it will have the same effect on you.
Also worth a look is the First Tuesday Book Club’s panel discussion of Great Expectations with Lloyd Jones and the marvellous Miriam Margolyes, which you can see here.
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Source: the local municipal library