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

5 responses to Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip

  1. John Self said:

    Hey! Wish I’d thought of that payoff line!

  2. Stewart said:

    As it happens, I’m glad you didn’t. Otherwise I’d be stuck with some awful contortion of how if it doesn’t win the Booker it will at least have been ‘pipped’ at the post. Yuck!

  3. jem said:

    This sounds like one to look forward to. I like the idea of it being a novel about stories. And its interesting to hear you say that ignorance of Great Expectations didnt hinder you. That was one aspect of this book that worried me. I have read G.E. – but dont really like the thought of a book that relies on a reader having prior knowledge.

    I had to re-order this one, first stockist couldnt deliver. Two new deliveries today including the might Darkmans!

  4. Aaron P. said:

    I think Mr Pip reveals the true nature of societal pressures affecting family relationships.

    The study on these societal pressures affecting the family unit’s funcionality; I’ve recently begun has proven to be quite self revelative in the method society pressures a community, thus breaking the family ties. It is usually the concept of change that has the greatest pressure on the society, and is what splits the family apart. Mr Pip was very revealing in that respect. When Matilda talks about how she was nervous about Pip’s new change once he becomes a “gentleman”. Lloyd Jones, a very knoweladgeable man of this change in surroundings affecting people, has put a lot of emphasis on it and this is what makes the story cry out so true. I think the family unit’s functionality is dependant on the necessity for stability in relationships and the external environment, if it is to remain.

  5. Stewart said:

    You know, Aaron P., I’m surprised that, almost a year on, I can’t remember a thing about Mister Pip, especially when I recall enjoying it and, reading over the post, seeing that I did.

    When you talk of family, was the family unit even in place from the start? I vaguely remember it just being Matilda and her mother. Or perhaps its just that relationship – mother and daughter – you are referring to?

    As I say, the book has gone from memory, so good luck with your study.

    Actually, reading over the review I see this part at the end:

    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.

    Now that his back catalogue is being introduced in Britain, I can’t say I’ve felt the urge to read any more of his work. Strange that!

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