Commonwealth Writer’s Award 2007 and, at the time of this posting, favourite to win the Booker 2007.
The last favourite to win was, and I probably remember this incorrectly, Life of Pi in 2002. There is much about the mood of Mister Pip that is reminiscent of Pi, in particular the format – an adult story disguised as a young adult’s novel. Different stories, of course, and not much allegory in Mister Pip but nevertheless, similarity aplenty. Could this be Jones’s homage to Martel given that Jones has said he would award his personal Booker of Bookers to Life of Pi.
Mister Pip’s book cover holds forth much promise of carefree sunny days in exotic surroundings. There is much on the island of Bougainville in 1992 to satisfy that preconception. Sandy beaches, bountiful fishing, and plentiful fruit. Paradise is, however, but an illusion. The father of our narrator, Matilda, has left the island for work on the Australian mainland leaving his wife and daughter to fend for themselves in a time of civil war. As the novel progresses, their village is visited by the “redskins” and the “rambos”, opposing factions in the war, and with each visit the menace increases.
The whites have also left the island and the school has closed. Mr Watts, the only white man to remains, steps into the breach and begins to teach the children. He enlists the parents and relatives to pass on the indigenous culture, religion, mythology and general knowledge. Yet the highlight of each day is his reading of a chapter of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. This serves as an introduction to Victorian England, a world away geographically, a century away in time and a welcome distraction from the realities of life on a war-torn island. It also becomes, quite unexpectedly, a source of conflict.
Many reviews have spoken of Mister Pip as a study of the “redemptive power of reading”. That is a misrepresentation in my view and may explain how for days after completing the novel, I sat bemused wondering what I had missed. For Matilda’s developing obsession with the characters in Dickens’ tale creates division and conflict between her and her mother, who fears losing her daughter to a set of foreign values. In turn Matilda’s mother becomes obsessed with the physical book itself. This leads, by the perverse logic that rules in wartime, to staggering barbarity, loss and grief.
Matilda’s voice is at times the limited view of childhood, at others the selective view of adolescence. The adults speak in whispers to shield the children from the true nature of the war. While she sees and understands her mother’s heartbreak at her husband’s absence, she chooses not to acknowledge the validity of her mother’s fears with regard to herself. Matilda’s depiction of her mother as she stands in front of the class expounding religious truths is not complimentary – it is one of a religious zealot losing both control and the struggle for her daughter’s soul. Mr Watts, the atheist, is portrayed as cool, controlled and ever polite and Matilda is firmly on the side of her mother’s foe.
The narrative voice is at times amusing but, like the cover, it lulls us into a false sense of security, an enforced innocence. This is not a young adult novel although it reads like one. A turn of the page, the flash of a blade, and the world changes. Matilda’s mother displays an unswerving integrity and surprising solidarity with her foe and her daughter is forced into the adult world in the cruellest fashion imaginable.
In the final and, admittedly, weakest section of the novel Matilda charts her progress (or is that suspended animation?) in that adult world. She remains in thrall to Mister Pip and Dickensia. Her pursuit of these keeps her occupied but, ironically, undermines her faith in them. They are not redemptive. Matilda’s redemption is, I feel, something that can follow the ending of the novel as she finds strength to face the demons in her life.
There’s much more that can be examined in this deceptive novel. The vocabulary is refreshingly un-PC and the undertones in the personal relationships complex though never explicitly drawn. However, there is much in the final section that feels superfluous. Yet when I asked myself how I would change it, I had no answer – proving, beyond doubt, that I am a reader not a writer.