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Mister Pip By Lloyd Jones

mister-pip-by-lloyd-jonesThe novel Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones was published in Great Britain in 2006 to rave reviews that filtered on to Canada and the United States, where the novel was published last year. Knowing it related to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, I thought that I should continue reading the classics and re-read Great Expectations first. This book was probably read by all of us in high school, but for me that was a lot of years ago, and I could not remember much of the story. I was delighted to re-discover Miss Havisham, locked in the past; the young Pip “brought up by hand” by his sister; the gentle and loving blacksmith Joe Gargery; the London lawyer Mr. Jaggers; of course the lovely Estella, and many more unforgettable characters. Great Expectations is written as a first-person narrative, in the voice of Pip, and begins with the words “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

For me there was comfort in knowing that since Pip is telling us his tale, this means that he survives his many ordeals – I often feared for his life. I was also struck by how contemporary this book felt – we learn that Joe Gargery was brought up in a home where his mother was abused by his father – she would leave him and return saying “he’s good in his heart”. It is, though, very 19th Century – London is a much different city in every way. Miss Havisham is a magnificent character and her manipulation of Pip and Estella has them reacting like puppets on a string. As Pip grows up, growing into his “expectations”, he matures enough to experience guilt for his behaviour toward Joe, and he thinks of his life during the years that his sister and Joe, and then Biddy, cared for him, with some regret. Pip’s friendship with Herbert, in London, is true and good, and lovely to read. I finished Great Expectations with such a sense of pleasure from both the writing and the storytelling.

Then on to Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. This is another magnificent book. Again, told in the first person; this time by Matilda, a 13-year-old living in Bougainville, an island “a few hours of open sea” from the Solomon Islands. The year is 1991.

A little history lesson here: my research, after I finished this book and wondered how much was true. Bougainville is an island in the chain of the Solomon Islands, once a South Pacific Paradise, where inheritance of tribal land is passed from mother to eldest daughter. During the Second World War the island saw extremely fierce combat as the last Japanese stronghold in the Solomon’s. After the war Bougainville was placed under Australian protection, but given to Papua New Guinea when they became independent in 1975.

The traditional life of the villagers was destroyed when copper was discovered on Bougainville, and mines developed in the early 1960’s, despite the protests of the inhabitants. The mining resulted in the chemical defoliation of pristine rain forest, and the dumping of huge amounts of toxic waste onto the land and into major rivers. When dispossessed villagers formed a rebel army, Papua New Guinea, with Australian government support, imposed a total blockade of the island - depriving the people of medicines, fuel and humanitarian aid. About 20,000 people were killed in the nine-year conflict. The women and children survived by fishing and foraging for food. The men who did not join the rebel army left to work in the mines in Australia. The white population left.

Except for Mr. Watts, the creation of author Lloyd Jones. Mr. Watts is the only white person on the island, and takes over the role of teacher. Great Expectations is a book of importance to Mr. Watts, and he decides to share it with the children by reading aloud to them each day. Matilda tell us “by the time Mr. Watts reached the end of chapter one I felt like I had been spoken to by this boy Pip”. Matilda mentions how she had found a friend – “no one told us kids to look there (in a book) for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place..”

The children of the island take the story home to their parents, and their parents in turn come to the classroom to share their own stories, and knowledge, with the children. During all of this time life on the island is terrible - about half way through the book, Matilda says “Years later I would see on TV…” and I was greatly relieved to know that she would survive. Life becomes not only dreadful, but also unbearably heartbreaking. Years later Matilda writes “In recalling these events I do not feel anything.”, but she does remember “At last I knew what to do. I had to survive”.

This is a book about the power of the written and spoken word, about storytelling, and the ability of people to survive the most dreadful circumstances. As Matilda tells us, Great Expectations was “the one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed. It gave me a friend in Pip. It taught me you can slip under the skin of another just as easily a your own, even when that skin is white and belongs to a boy in Dickens’ England. Now if that isn’t an act of magic I don’t know what is.”

“Mr. Dickens had taught every one of us kids that our voices were special, and we should remember this whenever we used it, and remember that whatever else happened to us in our lives our voice could never be taken away from us.” And what a voice Matilda has, and what a pleasure it was to read Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip.

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