Thursday, 13 January 2011

Book Club - Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Though short, this novel is crammed with weighty ideas and hidden levels of meaning - when reading it, one can chose whether to accept it on face value, or whether to explore and probe its hidden depths.

Ideas of race, morality, education and identity spill out of the pages, and yet never feel forced upon the reader. The charming, innocent voice of the narrator, a 13-year-old black girl, Matilda, ensures a child like, light hearted tone is maintained.

Set in the 1990s on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, the story follows the community of a village as they struggle to live during a bloody civil war. Matilda's father has left to work in Australia, leaving Matilda and her Mother alone.

One day, Mr Watts, the only white man in the village and previously known to the children as Pop Eye, appoints himself as teacher and sits the children down in the old classroom to read them Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Within chapters the children are hooked.

The power of reading and language are vital in this novel. Jones uses literature as a form of escapism - the children chose to live in Pip's world and avoid their own dangerous reality, and even Mr Watts shelters himself through storytelling.

The inclusion of old, cultural tales shared by the children's mothers in class, was an addition that I could appreciate and understand. Yet, I found them frustrating. These passages slowed the pace of the novel and the same effect could have easily been created through a simple description. That these passages were given the same page space as significant and shocking events was deeply unsatisfying.

Critics may argue the novel rarely steps beyond stereotypes - the drunk solider, the god-fearing black woman and the wise but odd white man. But there can be no denying that the novel is emotive and intelligent. The horrifying events the reader witnesses are never sensationalised, but relayed tenderly.

The final chapters are unnecessary, except to tie up loose ends (unfortunately, this is a messy and unsuccessful attempt). However, Jones does attempt to use these pages to communicate further serious concepts, and the overall effect does not detract from the rich novel as a whole.

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