On 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.