Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book for September 07: Mister Pip

Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones, Text Publishing, $29.99

I chose Mister Pip with few expectations simply to get the group started. actonb suggested we might begin with a Booker-nominated book and at the time, it was on the long-list, along with wretched Ian McEwan’s On Chessil Beach. Since then it has both been short-listed and bumped McEwan from his position as favorite to take out the word’s most coveted literary award. I’m still annoyed with McEwan over the obnoxious first half of Atonement and he hasn’t paid enough yet. So, as Simpsons bully Nelson Muntz would say, hah-hah.

Mister Pip is a book of great beauty, but also one of fear, horror and trauma. New Zealander Lloyd Jones has created a convincing voice for Matilda, his young Papua New Guinean narrator. Through the pages of Dickens's Great Expectations, she learns to escape from the privations of life in blockade-stricken Bougainville into an unknown world.

The story begins in 1992, several years after PNG rebels led by Francis Ona sabotaged the Panguna Copper Mine, shutting it down. When a blockade is thrown up around the island by government troops, no-one in Matilda’s village is particularly worried – until the generator fuel runs out and the hospital is raided of its medicines by the soldiers. By the time the last boat for Rabaul leaves, everyone has begun to realise what the war means.

The only white who stays behind when that last boat sails is Tom Watts, also known as Pop Eye for the bulging eyes that “made you think of someone who couldn’t get out of the house quickly enough”. To begin with, Pop Eye is a figure of fun. He pulls his mad local wife Grace about on a bamboo trolley while wearing a bright red clown’s nose. The children have watched in fascination, but none of them has ever heard him speak until he takes over as their teacher.

He struggles with arithmetic, can’t identify the weird fish that washes up on the beach and can’t tell the children why Aristotle, Einstein and Darwin are famous, but he knows Charles Dickens back to front. He introduces the children to the English writer, reading Great Expectations aloud at the rate of a chapter a day.

Mr Watts is a skilful creation. He is a Robinson Crusoe-like character, appearing on the island from the unknown outside world. Instead of a meek Man Friday, Mr Watts has a village full of people who simultaneously look up to because he is white and thinking him slightly simple because he has few practical skills. He has his flaws and his shortcomings, but he is a hugely compelling character.

When he reads to the class, he becomes a part of the story he tells. The line between writer, reader and character blurs as he variously claims to be Charles Dickens and Pip. Mr Watts is in his element when he takes the role of a male Scheherezade, renting his life for a week from a rabble of rebel soldiers by stringing out the story of his life night after night.

But on the seventh day, when the tale is all but told, the rebels disappear and are replaced by government soldiers who shoot Mr Watts, chop him up and throw his body to the pigs in a shocking act of retribution.

Mister Pip is about the power of books and reading, but it also focuses on contradictions: how life can be simultaneously simple and complex, beautiful and horrifying and how one person can be both brave and weak.

Matilda’s mother is a prime example of this. She is an angry woman who hates Mr Watts for his lack of faith and takes every chance to score points against him. Her anger is partially to blame for the suffering inflicted by the soldiers on the villagers. Nevertheless, she chooses to stand up for Mr Watts in the end, when it is already too late, declaring herself to be God’s witness to his murder and signing her own death warrant.

Jones’s writing is both lyrical and simple. In Matilda’s na├»ve voice, he has created something akin to Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Jones has skimmed close to Matilda being just a stereotypical ‘simple islander’. After all, would it be realistic to give a 15-year-old white Australian girl a similar voice? He weathers the storm, though, creating a realistic narrator with a full range of thoughts and feelings.

Jones’s turn of phrase can be breathtaking. Sentences such as, “A fish leapt in my heart”, set him apart from the crowd and would make him a worthy Booker winner.

That, and the fact that he’s not Ian McEwan.

Right, I’ve done my bit. It’s your turn now. Let the tournament begin.


Chesty LaRue said...

Ooooh. Official review!

I hated Great Expectations at school, and I have to admit that I was a little bit worried about this, but my fears were unfounded. It was really beautiful but so so sad - and right through the book there seemed to be this inevitability that it was all going to end badly.

That said, I found everything after the climax kind of awkward - I know the book would have been really short if it had ended with Matilda leaving the island but I think I would have been more satisfied. The last part of the book felt like a series of epilogues and while any one of them would have worked nicely, there was just too much information.

This is fiction ... I can imagine what happens to the character once the book ends. I don't need a catch-up.

meva said...

It strikes me as kind of biblical in it's form. Mr Watts is the white, slightly mad messiah who can use the magic of a ripping good yarn to subdue and win an unsophisticated community, but fails to win over the governing hegemony. The catastrophe of losing the world he had created on the seventh day is unutterably sad, but also kind of satisfying in its symmetry.

Or am I just a bit of a wanker?


redcap said...

chesty, I'm ashamed to say that I've never read Great Expectations. I was always put off by Estella being such an utter bitch. I made to through Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop, but that's about it. I really should 'do Dickens', shouldn't I?

You're right: the climax came too early in the book and everything that came after felt like epilogue. Really, all that we got from after Matilda left the island was the reason for the red nose and trolley and that really wasn't enough to make it worthwhile.

meva, good grief, of course you're not a bit of a wanker! Wash your mouth out. I'm shocking at biblical analogies and I was struggling with that 'and on the seventh day he was shot' stuff, but yours is a good interpretation. I do still like the idea of him being Scheherezade if her cunning Arabian Nights plan had gone tits-up, though.

phishez_rule said...

I've read the book. Now its time to think about it all I guess.

I liked the book. But I have to confess, it was on several levels. Having never read Great Expectations (and never tried) it was an introduction to the basic plot of it, and the main characters. And the book itself told several stories in one. In these parts I found the plot to be a tad jumpy, but generally t was easy to follow. I guess the jumpy bits would be a reflection of how untrained Matilda was, and how scattered her recollections were. It added to the story, but it was irritating.

The other reason I liked the book was this. Matilda knew Pip. Through what she had read, or had read to her. She knew his moods, and his thoughts and his reactions. But she never met him, nor was she likely to. I find it ironic that you selected the first book for this blog, to be a parody of the relationships that arise in the blogosphere.

I agree with Chesty. The climax for me was when the soldiers came in and murdered Mr Watts and Delores. The ending was when she was caught in the river and got rescued. From there, there was no need to continue the story. The last bit was a drag to read. I know that Jones wanted to tie up the story and fully explain Mr Watts' history, but he was dead by this stage. If he has no future, is that really necessary?

Ariel said...

Great review. I read this book about a year ago and loved it (against my own expectations, actually) so was looking forward to hearing what you thought.

I thought that Matilda's mum hated Watts because, as a white man, he represented the same white men who had lured away her husband to another place and another culture, and could see Matilda being similarly seduced.

Re. the ending, on one hand I quite liked knowing how things ended up, but on the other, I agree that it all felt like a postscript after Matilda had left the island. Maybe it should have been written as such?

I read Great Expectations after I saw the awful 'modern' film version starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, which I absolutely hated, but felt I couldn't truly hate without having read the original. So I read the whole thing over the next three days, in a fit of contrariness.

redcap said...

phishez, I suppose the scattered recollections were also a parallel to the way the kids we recalling bits of Great Expectations. I didn't find it particularly annoying, but I did have trouble putting my finger on how much time was passing.

ariel, sorry, it was a bit simplistic to say Dolores only hated Mr Watts for his lack of faith. You're right, of course. I feel like I should read Great Expectations myself now! Did you hate the book as much as the Gwynneth Paltry film?

Ariel said...

I loved the book, and it did help me with an informed hatred of the Gwynny film ...

Chesty LaRue said...

Going slightly off-topic, but my hate for Great Expectations was in great part to it being the one dud in our HSC English Syllabus. We got Stoppard, Browning, Hamlet, Donne ... and Dickens. Gah. It sucked by comparison.

I don't think you need a great deal of knowledge of Great Expectations for Mister Pip. In fact, I kind of think it could have been any number of books - the point wasn't the story itself.

killerrabbit said...

Mr Pip I found good, but not great. A very easy read which brought you into the world that was going 'backwards' because of the isolation from the war. I loved that during school the traditional knowledge of the elders of the community was brought to the young people, but they were more interested in a escaping to a different world than in listening to stories about crabs and fish.

I was wondered why Mr Watt just chose that book - out of the house filled with books that is described. Also, why when Great Expectations gets destroyed he gets the kids to remember bits - rather than exciting them with another different escape?

Dot said...

I actually really liked the ending!!!!!!
It got me thinking...
It would have been too easy for Jones to finish with Matilda flying away from her island realising it looks like a cow pat after all. And then the reader could put the book down and sigh and wonder how Mr Pip had armed her for the big wide world.
Instead Jones set himself a much more difficult task of showing us the complexities of knowing oneself through great literature. After leaving the island, perhaps the greatest thing Matilda got from Great Expectations was recognizing Mr Pip’s limitations as a role model and friend (and thereby learning where she started as an individual).
On the island Mr Pip became too important. He literally became a real figure, reality was warped... and horrible events were born from this imbalance. Yet in New Zealand Mr Watt’s had no importance. He was shallow, weak... and ineffectual.
I loved that the character of Matilda was given the chance to travel between these two worlds (and the gaudy tourist trails of England) and her develop her own response to what she experienced.

Nai said...

Sorry for the shorthand I'll be using, getting 5 minutes online without being called out of the office is nigh on impossible at the moment.
Was I alone in feeling a little unsure of the time we were in? I got it once dates and events were mentioned, but before that I was completely unsure of the historical setting of the story. I actually quite liked being a little lost in that way, it added to the atmos and flux of the narrative.
Some of the phrasing was just lovely. I was really taken by some of them when Mr Watts was telling the story of him and Grace writing on the walls. Sorry, I haven't got an example!
Is anyone else concerned with the appropriation of the young, female Islander's voice by the older, male, white author? I'm honestly not that bothered by it in this case, but after just writing an essay about postcolonial feminism and living in a remote indigenous community where I am constantly keeping myself in check on these matters, I'm interested to hear what anyone else thinks.
Again, sorry for the lack of deep analysis etc!

Dot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dot said...

hey, i just noticed the New York Times has reviewed Mr Pip!

can be read here:

(or if link doesn't work look in arts/books section of nytimes... obviously)

sounds like the reviewer didn't enjoy reading the book but felt she should say something nice anyway.

redcap said...

Damn. The mistress of the books, Kerryn Goldsworthy, wrote a much better review than I did. I guess that's why she's paid for it and I'm not.(Yet. Gimme a week.)

The Blakkat said...

Hmmm.. I think have may spoiled the ending for myself by reading everyone's comments. I couldn't help it and I should have read more of the book than I have at present (about 1/3). I got waylaid by Bill Byrson & now the Deathly Hallows.

That's an interesting point you make, Nai, about an older white man appropriating the voice of a young, islander girl. My only thought in regards to this is - that is what good writers do. I mean, assuming that you think the character's sounds authentic, then you have to commend the author for stepping so far outside his own class, gender & culture to write in a voice so very different from his own. I think the only question to assess the validity of his choice is whether or not you find the the character of Matilda believable?

Nai said...

blakkat - I agree with you re:" 'that's what author's do'. Like I said, I have postcolonial stuff on the brain, so much so that I am instantly dismissing any postcol analysis of texts. Just to be contrary, teehee.

Milly Moo said...

Hi fellow Paper Drunkards

I have read all of your comments and feel rather like a mental pygmy in comparison. This book was a deserved winner because it took the skill of a white, male author to provide the 'voice' of a parochial village girl in the midst of a terrible war and yet....

(Wincing slightly): And yet it still didn't convince me. Mr Watts was certainly depicted as unusual and the author leads us to believe that Watts doesn't escape the island because he doesn't have anything to go back 'home' to - he's an outside wherever he goes.

I agree with other esteemed drunkards who have likened Mr Watts to a biblical figure (I keep seeing Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast or the movie Black Robe in my mind) who may be somewhat respected or revered by the 'locals' yet, ultimately will be destroyed by them or betrayed by them. Simple moral here? If you don't fit in, you'll never fit in, especially during times of crisis.

The eccentric character of Mr Watts asid, I didn't buy the voice of Matilda. I had to keep reminding myself that the story was based in 1991/1992 (over several months not days, surely?). I don't profess to having any knowledge of life in PNG but Matilda and her fellow villagers' naivete and almost total ignorance about the Western World doesn't quite ring true.

In addition, I found (did any of you?) that having knowledge of Dicken's original novel probably is a negative to fully enjoying 'Mr Pip' here, because his relationship to Matilda stretched the bounds of reality far beyond the imagination of a girl depicted as extremely closeted and naive. I guess that's the whole point of the story, but I would have rather found out more about the deeper motivations of Matilda's mother and more about her father.

That said, I particularly enjoyed the detached descriptions used by Matilda during the gruesome murder scenes. The author showed his skill by getting M to reveal the details but not her own reactions or feelings or any deep interpretations of the events - she saw, she survived, she repressed and she coped. This rings loud and clear for all PTSD sufferers.

Finally, I agree that finding out more about Mr Watts' background was unnecessary and disappointing. We *knew* right from the start that he hadn't exactly 'set the world on fire' in his own culture and it was best left to the readers' imaginations as to why.

To those who haven't read Dickens' 'Great Expectations' (which, incidentally, is what my ex-boyfriend used to call the front cover of Neil Diamond's 'Hot August Night' album - go check it out in your parents' rack next time you're visiting) it *is* worth a read. Like most classics, you'll be surprised at how many characters, quotes and situations you will know, thanks to being paraphrased and referred to so often in modern articles and literature.

Estella IS a bitch, but poor old Pip is too deluded and Miss Havisham is a classic. I remember watching a BBC mini-series from the 1970s with my mother and Miss Havisham gave me nightmares!

Good choice, Red Cap - it's not one I would have heard about otherwise and, I gotta say - the cover doesn't scream 'PICK ME UP - I'm gonna be a RIPSNORTER!'

redcap said...

milly, mental pygmy my fat arse! As if! You and Nai are both right - Matilda's voice was a bit too naive and innocent to be real. It was borderline patronising whitey. I think I was sold by the beautiful expressions Jones came up with and the rather sweet, dry humour. I really wanted to like the book and I wanted to like Mr Watts. He was a bit like a history teacher I had at high school - smart in a booky way, yet so utterly clueless that he didn't notice he was wiping white chalk dust all over his black trousers every day. I find that trait rather endearing, I have to admit.

I feel quite guilty that I've never got to Great Expectations. I promise I'll read it when I've cleared the pile of review books I've got. I've done the edgy short stories and the cathartic memoir and I've just picked up a particularly trashy (read: enjoying sickbed material) vampire novel. Still got two crime novels, something on urban legends, a coffee table book on weird deep sea fish and an A to Z of birdwatching to go, though, so it could take a little while...