Mister Pip

mister pipOn an unnamed island near Australia, trouble is brewing. The redskins, who work for the white Australians, have come in to put down the rebels, and the island has been cut off from commerce with the outside world: no more electricity, no more medicines. The islanders could be worse off. They still have fish in the ocean to eat, and they still have the abundance of food the island itself produces. They have trees, and they can rebuild the homes the redskins burn down. But they are in danger, and people are uneasy, not knowing whom to blame or what to do about their sick babies or their rebel sons.

This is the situation in Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, and the situation in which we find Matilda, a young island girl. Her village is different from the others around the island, because they have a unique possession: a white man. Mr. Watts is the last white man on the island, married to an island woman, Grace. When all the other white people desert the island, Mr. Watts steps forward and offers to become the village schoolteacher. His instruction consists of two things. First, he invites the mothers and fathers of the children to come and offer their wisdom on life, survival, religion, catching fish, or any other topic at hand. Second, he reads aloud from Great Expectations.

This introduction to Dickens (“Mister Dickens”), and a world unfathomably different from Matilda’s island, is the heart of Mister Pip. Mr. Watts engages the children in understanding what Great Expectations has to offer them, and what they can offer in return. Bit by bit, Matilda’s imagination and understanding opens and blossoms, even when the literature causes unforeseen problems. By the end of the novel, I felt that Matilda was as much a part of Pip’s world as Pip was a part of Matilda’s.

I admit that I was skeptical when I began this book. I feared that it might be too sentimental, and I was also nervous that it might be heavy-handed — Western Culture teaching the Black Folk How to Live, that kind of thing. As a matter of fact, it was neither. It was a charming book, with just enough depth to keep me interested as well as charmed. I really liked all three of the main characters (Matilda, Mr. Watts, and Matilda’s mother.) I’m a bit surprised that it was shortlisted for the Booker — it seemed a little simple and light for such a prestigious prize — but it was a truly nice reading experience and I would certainly recommend it.

I did notice that at one point in the book, for about twenty pages, Mister Pip changed briefly into a very different book. For that brief period of time, Mr. Watts was not who he seemed to be, Mister Dickens was not who he seemed to be, and even Matilda had profoundly changed. It was as if a big piece of the surface of the book had dropped away, leaving an exciting glimpse of intricacies behind it, complications that we had never suspected. But then, after those twenty pages, the surface closed again, and the book ended tidily. I sometimes pass the time rewriting books in my mind the way I’d rather have read them. Unfair, I know. And I did enjoy Mister Pip just as it was. But in some ways, I’d rather have a messy, complicated jungle-book than a smooth and charming surface. As Matilda says,

Everyone says the same thing of Dickens. They love his characters. Well, something has changed in me. As I have grown older I have fallen out of love with his characters. They are too loud, they are grotesques. But strip away their masks and you find what their creator understood about the human soul and all its suffering and vanity.

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11 Responses to Mister Pip

  1. Teresa says:

    I’ve taken this home from the library at least once and not managed to read it. I’ve heard such good things about it but couldn’t help but be skeptical, for the very reasons you mention. But if it passes the Jenny test, I know it’s worth a try.

  2. Funnily enough, I just finished reading this book today as well. I loved the book though, specially because it picked up rapidly in the last fifty odd pages, and I couldn’t see the events that transpired coming.

    I think I know what you mean by preferring a slightly more messy book, specially considering that this book was perfectly set up to have a non-tidy (I don’t think this is a word, but it fits better than ‘untidy’) ending. However, I don’t know… maybe I’m easily pleased, but, I wouldn’t change the ending. :S

  3. Jenny says:

    Teresa — It is enjoyable, and it’s a quick read. The “Jenny test” — ha!

    uncertainprinciples — I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book! I just really, really like my books messy and dark and complicated as often as possible. This was lovely as it was, though. Nothing wrong with being easily pleased. :)

  4. litlove says:

    I really liked this, although I didn’t necessarily expect to, either. But I felt okay also about those last twenty pages, which I felt marked the completion of Matilda’s education. Having been seduced by the image, she had to understand the reality behind it; she had to research Mr Watts the way she was researching Dickens, and neither really stood up so well to that – a lesson in further education for us all! ;)

  5. Steph says:

    This sounds like a really interesting book, even though I’ve never read any Dickens (he’s my literary kryptonite, it would seem)! Can the book be read and enjoyed without a prior knowledge of Great Expectations, or would one’s reading experience be greatly enhanced by having first read that one?

  6. Jenny says:

    litlove — it’s exactly the part you’re talking about that I liked best, when Matilda saw the reality behind the images (of Dickens, Mr. Watts, her father, and even herself.) But *after* that part, the book sewed itself up more neatly again.

    Steph — I’ve read Great Expectations, but a) a LONG time ago and b) it’s not one of my favorites (though it seems to be everyone else’s.) I think you could easily read and enjoy this without having read GE.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    It sounds so interesting. I think I’d probably read Great Expectations first, even though I know you say I wouldn’t have to.

  8. Jenny says:

    Rebecca — it’s not a bad idea. It kind of made me want to re-read GE, even though it’s never been my favorite Dickens. But the parts of GE that are crucial to Mister Pip are clearly explained in the book, so it’s not really necessary.

  9. Kristen M. says:

    I would have never picked up this book but I’m someone who re-reads Great Expectations every two or three years so I think that I would like this view of the book that is likely to be both different and yet possibly the same as mine. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

  10. savidgereads says:

    Oooh I am a bit worried as I thought that I had commented on this and what a great post I like how you were on over by the book! I think its a brilliant little book with a huge amount of punch!

  11. Jenny says:

    Kristen — let me know what you think. I’m interested to hear the opinion of someone who’s really familiar with GE.

    Simon — the book does have a lot of punch, yes, and it did definitely win over a skeptic!

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