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Sometimes a novel comes along that excites your imagination even before you read it. I first heard about Mister Pip when it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize – Great Expectations on a tropical island and under the spectre of civil war – how on earth would it work or be even be relevant? But Lloyd Jones, like Dickens before him, is a master storyteller and one of the themes of the book is the enduring and redemptive power of literature and its ability to set minds free.
In the opening chapter we are introduced to ‘Pop Eye’ aka Mr. Watts, the last white man on the island. He is intriguingly described, wearing a crumpled white linen suit and pulling a trolley in which Mrs. Watts stands, proud and mute and looking like a queen. ‘He sometimes wore a clown’s nose… and on those days you never saw such sadness.’ Mrs. Watts is a native and generally acknowledged to be ‘mad as a goose’ – our curiosity is instantly aroused.
The story unfolds in a tiny village on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville and we see it all through the eyes of thirteen year old Matilda. She lives alone with her mother, her father having left three years earlier to work in Australia. She misses him and also misses school, which closed when the teachers fled at the outbreak of trouble. So when Mr. Watts decides to reopen the school she turns up with the other local children, full of ‘expectations’. Mr. Watts introduces the children to Mr. Dickens, reading aloud every day a chapter of Great Expectations. At first Jones focuses on the escapist pleasures of reading and the children are captivated by the other world of London and England. Matilda identifies with the orphan Pip and creates a shrine on the beach, writing his name in the sand and decorating it with shells. . As Matilda is drawn more and more to Mr. Pip and Mr. Watts her mother becomes increasingly jealous of these other influences on her daughter’s life.
Just as the book changes Matilda, so the environment in which it is read alters the book. When the soldiers come and find Mr. Pip’s name written in the sand they assume he is a resistance leader and a bloody confrontation ensues. In an effort to avert disaster Mr. Watts, over a period of several nights, begins to relate the story to the rebels, conflating it with local folklore and with the story of his own life with Grace. Thus, out of their collective imaginations, a hybrid is born that endears Mr. Watts to the older generation. There is a shocking and brutal denouement which completely takes the reader by surprise but in the final chapters we meet the adult Matilda, who uncovers the real story behind Mr. Watts and finds her own voice in which to relate it.
Our group was united in universal praise for this book – we absolutely loved it, from its seductive cover to the satisfying way in which the story was tied together. Our pleasure was enhanced by the presence of Joan’s daughter-in-law, who it transpired was born and brought up on this tiny island which none of us had heard about before. She confirmed that the author had captured the atmosphere and essence of the island perfectly.
We next meet on Thursday, 14th February, when we will be discussing The Kite Runner.
[I’ve never seen a recently published book with so many different covers. These are a small sample.]
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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