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'Mister Pip' by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones is a well thought-out and sympathetically-written story about a young girl, Matilda, caught up in civil war on the South Pacific tropical island where she has lived all her life.
War threatens the everyday lives of people from Matilda's village. The young men have already gone off to war, and the villagers live under constant threat of attack and other war atrocities. There is one white man left, Mr. Watts, who has been married to villager Grace for some years. Grace, however, doesn't seem to be quite of right mind and she and Mr. Watts have been mostly ignored or ostracised by the rest of the village. They live in a big house on the village outskirts and lead quite separate lives. As the war progresses Mr. Watts soon takes on the responsibility of Teacher at the little one-room school, using as his textbook Dickens's 'Great Expectations'. He reads the book aloud to the children, until the story takes on meaning and becomes something of an obsession, especially to Matilda, and Mr. Pip becomes a very real character in this war-torn community.
The book is lyrically written, often hinting at meaning rather than overtly stating it, with a simplicity that suits the story being told. Touching and heartbreaking; but I have given 4 stars instead of 5 as I didn't quite warm to the characters as much as I wanted to, especially Matilda and Mr. Watts. Winner of the 2007 Comonwealth Writers' Prize and shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker, the book seems sure to become a modern classic and I wouldn't be surprised to see it one day as a school text. Reminiscent of, although quite different from, William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'.
'Mister Pip' is a fiction book by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones, published in 2006 and shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. The book has garnered a lot of praise from various critics, but it was the book cover which attracted me to it; lots of bright, vivid images of birds, flowers and a little girl, really make it stand out on the book shelf.
The story is narrated by Matilda as she looks back at her youth, growing up on a tropical island called Bougainville (part of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean). The island is in the throws of a civil war and all of Matilda's school teachers have fled to safety. So Mr. Watts, the only white person on the island, takes on the teaching role and reads Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations' to his class, and Matilda is immediately swept away by the imaginary world she enters each time Mr. Watts begins to read. However her religious mother Dolores is less than impressesed by Matilda's new favourite teacher, and when warring tribes invade their small village, catastrophe ensues.
My favourite aspect of 'Mister Pip' is the notion of how you can become totally enthralled by a book; as Mr. Watts tells Matilda "A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch on fire and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames."
I think it would a good idea to read, or at least have some knowledge of Dickens' 'Great Expectations' before reading this, as the story and characters are referred to throughout the book. Also, after reading a few chapters, I thought this would be a lovely book for parents to read to their children, but towards the end there is some strong language, and some quite disturbing events which would not be suitable for young readers.
Overall I would describe 'Mister Pip' as 'charming'; despite the conflict on the island and the contempt Dolores has for Mr. Watts, the character of Matilda is very endearing, and the language and beautiful descriptions of Bougainville had me engrossed, just as the events of 'Great Expectations' occupied the mind of young Matilda.
I have to admit that I only picked this book up in Waterstone's because the cover attracted me to it. I often find that the way books are displayed on tables and on shelves makes me look around for something that is visually captivating. There is an old adage 'never judge a book by its cover' but I did just that, initially anyway.
The cover promised blue skies and bright tropical flowers and really made the book stand out. This is one excellent example of how the way a book is packaged can attract a potential reader.
Matilda is a thirteen year old girl who lives in Bougainville which is a tropical island in Papua New Guinea, torn apart by civil war. Mr Watts is the one teacher at the small school where the only book they have is Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and he is white. Quotations from and references to Great Expectations are a recurring theme right through the novel.
The parallels between the islanders and the Dickens novel are very cleverly drawn but I still had difficulty in putting it all together in any kind of believable way until I had got to about the half way mark in the story.
The author, Lloyd Jones was a journalist in that area during the nineties, so he uses his background knowledge to 'educate' the reader. I felt that there was not much happening during the story but there was lots of information about the people and their lives.
At first I found the references to Great Expectations quite odd and a bit incongruous and I did have some difficulty in getting myself really 'into' the story. For me it was enjoyable, if a little peculiar to read. I wouldn't describe it as a thriller, or horror story as many critics have done. To me it is more descriptive than anything else and then there's that odd repetition of chunks from Dickens. Certainly a strange combination to my way of thinking.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, although I found it somewhat strange in structure, you would have to read it to appreciate that somewhat spurious link with Great Expectations. A good idea but I'm not convinced by it.
This book opens with so much praise from critics that it's initially a challenge to find where the story begins. It is recommended by newspapers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, magazies including 'Saga' and 'Good Housekeeping', and it was part of Richard and Judy's Book Club, and it was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. In some respects, that makes this a daunting read. Not because I think it will be too worthy or challenging, but because I always suspect I will be disappointed when a book is so massively hyped up. How can it possible be as good as these thirty million people are suggesting? My inner sceptic folded its arms as I started to read.
'Everyone called him Pop Eye. Even in those days when I was a skinny thirteen-year-old I thought he probably knew about his nickname but didn't care. His eyes were too interested in what lay up ahead to notice us barefoot kids.'
The first paragraph immediately illuminates several key points. This is a retrospective narrative told by a maturing teenager, suggesting that to some extent we will follow her emotional development. We are introduced to a central character, whose nickname makes him seem strange but whose description hints at untold wisdom. Perhaps he will be some kind of mentor for the narrator. There is a sense of us and them which deepens when the reader learns that Pop Eye (or Mr Watts) is a rarity who quickly becomes an oddity: the only white man left on the island since it was blockaded as part of a civil war. In a way then, the basic themes of the novel seem clear from the first page; this is probably just as well, since this is a fairly slim novel (219 pages in the paperback edition).
The joy of reading this comes from the simplicity with which the story is told. The narrator's descriptions are simple but telling, using language that is appropriate to her life in a small, isolated village on a small, nearly-forgotten island. When describing Pop Eye further we learn that:
'His large eyes in his large head stuck out further than anyone else's - like they wanted to leave the surface of his face. They made you think of someone who can't get out of the house quickly enough.'
In fact, the simplicity of the style and language may initially lull you into feeling this is quite a calm tale, but as the civil war worsens and events become increasingly dramatic, the understated style allows the reader to be more shocked by the terrible events that happen.
The real story begins when Mr Watts decides to re-open the school and teach the children using only one textbook: 'Great Expectations'. This initially creates some mild humour as the children pass on Mr Watts' initial message to their parents: tomorrow they will be meeting Mr Dickens. This unfamiliar, white man's name creates quite a stir and the next day each child arrives to school with a list of things they would like the mysterious Mr Dickens to provide: kerosene, matches, aspirin...
What Mr Dickens really seems to provide, at least initially, is confidence for Mr Watts. Weak on geography, lacking in the history of the famous names he passes on to them, he is always grateful to pass on what he is sure of: the work of the greatest British writer ever. The children appear to be under a spell, for although they have to query much of the vocabulary ('What does "rimey" mean?' 'It means misty. Foggy.' 'Ok...what does "foggy" mean?') as they learn about life in Victorian London, they enjoy the story so much that they take little snippets home to their parents. This is where the story really provides something for the children: trapped in their homes with the danger increasingly threatening, (gradually, the families' older boys vanish to become fighters,) they are able to escape to a marvellous alternative world as they follow Pip's journey.
For their families, the story has a rather different effect: unease. The narrator, Matilda, seems increasingly drawn into a battle between her mother, who believes in the Bible, God and the devil, and Mr Watts, who believes in none of those things, but does believe in the power of literature. How Mr Watts responds to this leads to some quite entertaining scenes, until an underhand act and a child's error combine to create a violence that gathers a fearful momentum. The main section of the book is concerned with these battles.
The final section of the book is rather different and seems somewhat unnecessary. Matilda learns truths that seem of little value and the book feels rather aimless by the end, the links to 'Great Expectations' strained in order to create a work of thoroughly modern, post-colonial meta-fiction. It does start to feel a little 'worthy'. That criticism aside, the novel is worth reading to enjoy Matilda's distinctive voice and remember that literature really can have powerful effects - for good and ill.
Lloyd Jones clearly has an extensive knowledge of the area about which he writes (Papua New Guinea), and it is possibly this which enables him wear his learning so lightly. The geography and culture are often alluded to rather than painstakingly spelled out, as can sometimes be the case. I like this, as I enjoy finding out about other places and/or times when reading fiction, but it's annoying when it feels like a lesson.
On the whole I found it a very satisfying read, and although the fact that it was tied so closely to Great Expectations, meant that the connections sometimes seemed a little forced, it did make me want to go back to that book too (one of the Dickens that I found enjoyable). I was surprised that it was a Booker nomination as I felt that the structure was somewhat variable. A beautifully constructed and carefully balanced beginning, gave way to a much more rushed feeling narrative at the end. To me, it was almost as though the writer was pushing towards a deadline, and reached a point where he felt that "that would do."
That said I enjoyed it and plan to reread some time. If you would like to give it a try it is currently (October 2013) available from Amazon for £6.29 in paperback, or £4.99 on Kindle.
I recently read this book, and although I bought it based on the Booker Prize nomination, I was pleased I'd read it anyway. However, I'm not sure I would have nominated it myself.
The novel is set in Bougainville Island (which, if you're like me and Geographically ignorant, you might need help from Wikipedia to locate it in Papua New Guinea) during the early 1990s, when the government of Papua New Guinea took action against traditional landowners, capitalising on the Island's valuable copper mine - the richest in the world. The protagonist and narrator, Matilda (whose name is given by the Australians working the copper mine) lives in a tiny village with her mother; her father, along with the village's other men, have either left to work for the Australians or left to fight against the Government (amongst a group the narrative refers to only as "The Rebels"). Within the village, however, resides one white man, casually referred to by all inhabitants as "Pop Eye", on account of "his large eyes in his large head [which] stuck out further than anyone else's - like they wanted to leave the surface of his face. They made you think of someone who can't get out of the house quickly enough". His real name is Mr Watts, and he lives with his wife Grace - a native of the island.
After the teachers leave the island on the last boat, Mr Watts decides to reopen the school and teach the village children himself. However, there are no text books, no exercises, and no tests. Instead, he reads to the children from Great Expectations, and several times. As the novel progresses, the village is overtaken by Redskins who find a child's drawing of the words "Mr Pip" in the sand, and demand to be told who Mr Pip is. After some time, Mr Watts claims the title, and begins to tell his life story.
* * *
That's a simplified synopsis, but I don't want to give the plot away. Unlike some books that I've read, I don't have a lot to say about this one; however, some things I did note:
*Despite the language being labelled "poetic" by some critics, I found it a little awkward in places - particularly the way that some paragraphs were constructed from very short sentences. Perhaps this is deliberate, given how the story is narrated by a fourteen year old child; but there were times when I found the story didn't flow well and felt the language could have been more fluid
* The middle of the book dragged in places; but then the final section skipped several years at once. When Matilda leaves the island it's as if her life isn't important any longer, and despite the significant change in her life, the whole episode is white-washed.
* The Great Expectations motif was a good one; but by the time I'd reached the novel's half-way point, I was getting a bit tired of it. The book has a profound influence on Matilda, but I thought it was a little crass near the end when she writes a thesis (Master's or Doctoral we're not told) on the subject and goes to Rochester and Gravesend for research.
* The novel dealt well with themes of post-colonialism by keeping them at bay - they were ever present in the narrative but subtly placed to keep the main focus on the characters and the island community at large. I appreciated that.
* I enjoyed the characterisation of Matilda's mother, but I felt her demise was a little unnecessary.
Overall, it was a good book, although I don't think it deserved all the praise it received.
The second Richard and Judy book I chose to read this year was entitled Mister Pip and is an endearing tale of a young girl trapped on a Papua New Guinea Island [Bougainville]which is ravaged by Civil War, between red skins and rambos. The author, Lloyd Jones, covered this war as a journalist in the 1990's and his knowledge of the situation can be seen in this book.
The narrator of the story, 13 year old Matilda, begins her story as a blockade has begun. Helicopters circle the island at night putting immense fear into the islanders. They have no electricity due to the generators being destroyed and they are cut off from the outside world. The source of work on the Island, the mine, has closed and all the teachers have fled on the last helicopters. Apart from the presence of pidgin Bibles, civilisation might never have touched the village.
The only white man left on this Island is the elusive man, Mr Watts, who stands up to the role of 'teacher' and teaches the young people of the island skills and reads to them Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a recurring theme throughout the book.
The first thing that struck me about this book was the front cover, so colourful and jungle-like I got the great sense this book was going to be fantastic and interesting, I had 'great expectations' of it.
The thing I enjoyed about this book was how Jones was able to draw such heavy parallels between Great Expectations and the islanders. To really get the feel of this book you should really read Dickens' novel. Events that occurred in that book aren't duplicated in this one but they are sort of similar in a strange way. The way Mr Watts is cut off from the world, the poverty that the islanders face and the sense of secrecy and betrayal are all occurring themes in both novels. Something i enjoyed noting when reading Mr Pip were these parallels.
The description of the island is exquisite and the narrative from Matilda really puts her view across to the reader, feeling her loneliness, her misery and her loss. Towards the end of the book a heart rendering moment happens and through this narrative you really do feel great sympathy for Matilda.
"Darker and more morally complex than it seems." That is how the Daily Telegraph describe this book; and they are correct. The front cover gives the impression of a joyful book but scratch the surface and the darkness of events and the horror are only all too clear.
One criticism of the book would be the way that the book lacks events in way. Its a tale of a different culture. Rather than going into massive detail about the lurking war, Jones' prefers to dedicate chapters to folk tales and little anecdotes of the islanders. This sometimes can lead to the story feeling directionless and uneventful. However, you could argue, that through these stories a sense of untouched life and culture comes through to the reader, providing knowledge which is great for a book to contain.
I did enjoy this book and was satisfied with the length 218 pages, any longer and my enjoyment would have dwindled. When recommending this book I think anyone who enjoyed Great Expectations will find this novel endearing and contain great connections to that novel. As i have read Dickens' novel i am unaware of how much the enjoyment of the book would be limited if you haven't read it. Certainly the story of Great Expectations is re-told in parts so i imagine that your enjoyment would not be hindered too much.
The book really isn't a thriller or chick flick, more of a heart rendering tale that educates the reader. Its a short book and is worth the read. The book has lots of information in it which may have been looked over on first reading, and is a book that can be re-read in a few months time.
Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Overpriced at £7.99 i think.
www.amazon.co.uk had it for £3.86