Fiction Friday – Mister Pip

Mister Pip Book CoverWritten by Lloyd Jones, 2006, pages 223, John Murray

Easily one of the most touching novels ever, I originally had to study Mister Pip for my English class. The job had to be carried out. There was nothing special about the novel, or so I thought. But almost near the end of the story, Mister Pip will blow up anyone’s mind. It’s simply that good.

Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, the story fully neglects the world that we know and travels to the desolate island of Bougainville, somewhere in the Pacific. Gradually we learn that Lloyd Jones has set the novel in a village on the Papua New Guinea island during a brutal civil war back in the 90s. As Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator, gets introduced, the war is building up to reach its tipping point. Young boys are sent by their parents to join the rebel forces so they can fight against the ‘red skins’; that’s what the locals call the invading Australian soldiers (because of their red skin under the glowing sun). Many other local families, including doctors and teachers, flee the island. Soon a blockade forms: nobody is coming in or out of the island.

The only white person that stays behind on the island however is Mr Watts. His knowledge of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations leads him to becoming the most qualified person to teach the local kids. They are consequently introduced to the foreign world of Victorian England: the world of Pip and Mr Dickens.

With the sheer simplicity of life on the island, the kids, eager to learn, question the foreign and unknown. While Jones clearly displays the juxtaposing lives of Matilda and the fictional Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations, we can also distinguish a few parallels between the two worlds. These short interludes in the overall process of the story contribute enormously to the gloomy and desolated atmosphere on the island. The red skins visit and military helicopters fly over them, yet the children have easily escaped into one of the greatest novels of all time thanks to Mr Watts’ belief in the power of literature.

We have all lost our possessions and many of us our homes,” he said. “But these losses, severe though they may seem, remind us of what no person can take, and that is our minds and our imaginations.

This belief eventually transgressed when Pip and Mr Dickens are mistakenly considered to be rebels by the red skin soldiers. Jones shows that there isn’t always a certain line between fiction and reality. The line that divides the two is in fact drawn by the people and setting of a place. In case of the island, there are many religious characters. Matilda’s mother, Dorothea, is a vivid example of how having faith in something can justify one’s actions in the face of a threat.

On the other side of the war are the rebel fighters: young and untrained kids from local villages. Their uncanny behaviour beautifully symbolizes the perfect imbalance of nature. The rebels are noisy, drink and stay up all night. Gradually Mr Watts’ tales and rants in the evening about Pip and Mr Dickens eases the tension as everyone escapes in another world with new possibilities and even newer discoveries.

I really like how Jones’ simple, but effective use of language was enough to describe the intense scenery on the island. It made me think of the television series LOST and the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The excessive use of linguistic devices such as similes and personifications, for instance people ‘argue like roosters’, supported the described context and characters very well.

The story does not know any saviour. All villagers, even including Pip and Mr Dickens, are subject to vicious acts that occur in any war. Nevertheless, Mister Pip is an interesting and clever read that stays with you for a long time.

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