On Friday, I was sent a pre-publication copy of Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones to review (oddly, it arrived a week after its publication date). Now, I hadn’t registered this novel on my literary radar for some reason. So I began reading it with no prior knowledge of it, and not knowing what to expect.
The narrator, Matilda, is a young woman from the Pacific island of Bougainville, which not only has the richest copper mine in the world, but is also an immensely fertile source of fish and fruit. In 1990, the government of Papua New Guinea took action against the Bougainville islanders, leading to a bloody civil war.
Most of the story relates to events that occurred on the island during that civil war, when Matilda was in her early teens. The narrative style is deceptively simple. I began reading thinking this would be a straight-forward ‘rites of passage’ novel. In a way it is, but it is far more, too.
The onset of the civil war has resulted in the closure of the school in the village where Matilda lives. To the rescue comes an unlikely teacher. Pop Eye, the only white on the island, a man who sometimes wears a red clown’s nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye along in a cart, steps into the breach. Pop Eye (aka Mr Watts) reads a chapter a day from Great Expectations to the kids, and it is this that not only helps them cope with the casually described hardships (and worse!) of living through the island’s blockade but also opens up their imaginations.
So far, so what? you might think. On a superficial level, this is another novel about an inspirational teacher and the power of books – in this case Great Expectations – to change lives. But the themes and ideas in this book reach much wider than most. On top of that, this is great storytelling. I was hooked. I read this book in two sittings and enjoyed every moment. There is suspense, there is pathos, there is horror, there is excitement – in fact, there is just so much to savour in this book.
There are two pieces of prior knowledge that would probably add to your enjoyment of this novel. The first is at least a passing acquaintance with Dickens’ greatest novel, Great Expectations. The second is an understanding of the civil war that pitched the rebel islanders (the ‘rambos’ of the book) against the government forces of Papua New Guinea (the ‘redskins’). However, neither is essential as the writing is just so damn good!
As soon as I finished it I had to find out more about Mr Jones, so I went onto the internet and only then discovered that earlier this year he had won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Mr Pip. And deservedly so.