Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip
Already having taken the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones now has its sights firmly set on the Man Booker Prize 2007, having been recently longlisted. And with strong writing telling a story that pushes the reader to all manner of emotional experiences, it certainly stakes its claim to be a modern classic, whatever the outcome.
Set in a blockaded Bougainville in 1991, during rebel uprising, the narrator Matilda tells us of how the one remaining white man in the province, Mr Watts, reopens the school and introduces them to “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century.” Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Each day he reads a chapter from the book, encouraging the children to use their imaginations to transport them back Victorian England, a place they’ll never know. And when the book gets lost, it is the imagination that is used to recall the novel, helping them to rebuild their shattered lives.
There are some books where I feel that having knowledge of another text would be useful prior to reading (e.g. Icelandic sagas for Halldór Laxness, or even Jane Eyre, prior to Wide Sargasso Sea) but with Mister Pip I didn’t feel less ignorant of the story due to my ignorance of Great Expectations. In fact, it put me more on a level with the children coming to this story for the first time, the snippets given eking out the story in my head.
Although it’s set in the real world, there are times when the book’s tropical setting seems almost mythic, not least because of the isolated setting, but through the folklore shared by the kids’ mothers:
We heard about an island where the kids sit in a stone canoe and learn sacred sea chants by heart. We heard you can sing a song to make an orange tree grow. We heard about songs that worked like medicine. For example, you can sing a certain one to get rid of hiccups. There are even songs to get rid of sores and boils.
Stories are what it’s all about, their power to engage the imagination, their indestructibility, and how one’s voice, written or spoken, is a unique thing that can’t be taken away. In many senses, Mister Pip has the feel of a book for children, although that notion is quashed as the book soon darkens, with scenes reminiscent of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts Of No Nation, only told from the other perspective.
The prose is wonderful, Matilda’s narration in harmony with the lazy days feel of island life, yet shot through with observations of the harsher aspects of life:
We could see the beach palms spreading up to a blue sky. And a turquoise sea so still we hardly noticed it. Halfway to the horizon we could see a redskins’ gunboat. It was like a grey sea mouse – it crawled along with its guns aimed at us. In the direction of the hills we heard sporadic gunfire. We were used to that sound – sometimes it was the rebels testing their restored rifles, and besides, we knew it was a longer way off than what it sounded. We had come to know the amplifying effects of water, so the gunfire just merged with the background chorus of the grunting pigs and shrieking birds.
The characters step off the page in their own ways, be it their need to understand the world around them or through enigmatic qualities. Why does Mr Watt, for example, sometimes wear a red nose? And no matter how comic or strange someone appears, they’re also steeped in sorrow.
While not a debut novel (that was published in 1985) Mister Pip is Lloyd Jones’s first to be published in the UK and it’s an accomplished creation, and surely destined for classic status. There’s joy, there’s wonder, there’s fear, sadness, shock. There’s Dickens. There’s so much more. Its success should hopefully see his back catalogue – and future novels – published in Britain as, for once, I wouldn’t mind keeping up with the Jones’s.
August 9, 2007