Book review: Mr Pip

By Lloyd Jones
Published by
John Murray

In Mr Pip, New Zealand author Lloyd Jones takes us on a journey to a coastal village on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville. Once there, we enter the life of Matilda, a girl in her early teens, and her fellow villagers during the civil war of the 1990s.

At first, life goes on as usual. There might be a blockade imposed on the island but the village can still rely on its fish, chickens and fruit. The only difference is that the local mine has closed and all the white men have left. All but one: Mr Watts, aka Pop Eye, whose wife, Grace, is a native of the island. With the departure of the white men, the school is left unattended but children are soon called back to the classroom as Mr Watts decides to be their teacher.

The fact that Mr Watts has never taught before and that he has admittedly ‘no wisdom’ doesn’t prevent him from understanding what the children need: a distraction from talk of gunfire, ‘redskin’ soldiers, rebel fighters and horror. Aided by his precious copy of Dickens’s Great Expectations, he intends to set the children’s minds free and give them a place to escape to.

From the opening lines, Matilda, the narrator of the story, is captivated by those words that conjure up a faraway country. She builds a very strong bond with Pip, the main character of the book, a bond that her Christian mother disapproves of, as she disapproves of Mr Watts and his godless ways. Her attempt at protecting her daughter’s mind, however, has tragic consequences as the ‘redskins’ arrive at the village and, having found the name of Pip written in the sand, they want to know who he is. Proof of his identity can only be found in Mr Watts’s book... but where is it?

Fiction and reality start to blur together and Mr Watts finds himself taking first the name of Mr Dickens and than that of Pip himself, when the rebel fighters take the place of the government soldiers. In a bid for time, Mr Watts, now called Pip, starts telling his own version of Great Expectations. With the book now lost, he combines the original story with elements of his own life and anecdotes that he has learnt from the villagers.

But the story doesn’t reach its end as it is interrupted by the tragic return of the soldiers and the disappearance of everything that Matilda had loved. Will she find the will to keep living? Will she find the truth about Mr Watts? Will she find her friend Pip again, the orphan whose destiny seems to be so similar to hers?

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize as well as shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, this story-within-a-story deals with a difficult subject matter in a delicate and simple way and is populated by characters that you will grow to love. Page after page you will marvel at their strength, their courage and the ability of one little girl to transform her life thanks to literature and an improbable friendship that goes beyond culture. Great expectations indeed!


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