Set against the backdrop of the civil war that took place on the Papua New Guinea copper-rich pacific island of Bougainville during the early 1990s, Mister Pip is named after the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Indeed, Dickens’ plot shapes the entire novel. Written by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and won the Commonwealth Prize in the same year and rightly so as I found it a lyrical, beguiling read.
Jones tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl called Matilda caught in the middle of a brutal civil war. The eccentric Mr. Watts, or ‘Pop Eye’ as the local children call him is the only white man left on the island. As the military tension intensifies and life becomes increasingly chaotic, Watts decides to take on the task of educating the children in their tiny ruined village schoolroom. In an attempt to give the children some semblance of order and, he begins teaching, or rather reading to them, his only ‘textbook ‘: Great Expectations.
Jones explores Matilda’s burgeoning love and deepening connection with Dickens’s protagonist, the boy Pip. Matilda explains:
I had found a new friend. The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears, the bad people spoke like pirates.
Against all odds and initial reluctance Great Expectations gives Matilda and the other children ‘a bigger piece of the world’ that they can enter and leave at will, as an escape from their own war-ravaged lives. As they hesitatingly explore the alien landscape of Victorian England with its muddy, misty marshes, Jones celebrates the power of fiction to unite, offer solace and even effect change. Slowly, the initially reluctant parents from the tiny village unite together with their children in the schoolroom to recount stories of their own childhoods as imaginations flourish.
Matilda’s life becomes more and more challenging as the revolution intensifies but Great Expectations helps her maintain a desire to live even when she loses her home and those most dear to her. Jones describes the horrific, civil war-driven atrocities with devastating simplicity. But Matilda’s imagination, ignited by Great Expectations, drives her on and ultimately saves her.
What I loved most about this book is its celebration of the power of literature and its ability to offer spiritual refuge when you have nothing else left, alongside its ability to transcend time and space and cultures. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, this fable-like novel rejoices in the power of the written word. As Mr. Watts realises: ‘A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.’
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones is published by John Murray, 219 pages.