Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mister Pip

New Zealander Lloyd Jones has written a superb and unusual tale for any book lover's consideration. Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Prize, Mister Pip is a story narrated by Matilda, a 13 year old girl living in a small village on an island in New Guinea during a brutal civil war in the 1990's. Helicopters hover, power goes out, teachers have fled, and both government and rebel troops of boys surround the village. Only one white man, Mr. Watt's, remains, becoming their teacher with dreams of making the classroom a "place of light". Mr. Watt's has an abiding love for Dickens and one particular book, Great Expectations. He reads to the children to provide an escape from their dreary days, to set their minds free, to encourage them to allow their imaginations to flourish. The children are enthralled by the story, especially the character Pip. When the rebels mistakenly assume that Mr. Watt's, identified as Pip, is a spy, the tale darkens and devastating events occur. "Just as Great Expectations changes Matilda, instilling in her a moral code, so the environment in which it is read changes the book." Faced with a crisis, Mr. Watt's must spin a tale that combines elements from Pip's life, his own, and that of the beleaguered islanders. Despite the heartache and horror that are contained in the story, there is considerable charm, humor and power in this book.

Jones writes in a lyrical way and has a wonderful ear for the earthy aspects of village life. Some people are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". He mentions characters with big bums. Despite devastating events in the story, the author makes it clear that he has great faith in literature and it's power to effect change and offer solace. That's what contributes much to create a memorable book. This book stands alone quite well but I think it would be an ideal book to read along with Great Expectations, to form the basis of a stimulating discussion.

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