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 naïve 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.