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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

2006

Text

220 pages

ISBN: 9781021520242

Source: the local municipal library

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Confession time!  Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens.  The reason?  Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!)  (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.)  Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.

I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre.  I am a dilettante after all.  But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen!  So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens.  In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?

Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish.  It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature.  Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure.  It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot.  Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten.  The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced.  Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):

In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket.  Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences.  Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind.  The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love,  whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella.  The list goes on.  And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation.  The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.

Last, but by no means least, there is the language.  The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is.  Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story.  Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.

The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London.   Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:

Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):

‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last.  You understand what I say?’

A gentle pressure on my hand.

‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’

A stronger pressure on my hand.

‘She lived and found powerful friends.  She is living now.  She is a lady and very beautiful.  And I love her!’

With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.  Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it.  The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life.  I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it.  With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099511571

460 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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