05 May, 2008

'Mister Pip' - Lloyd Jones

Mister Pip brings a new reading to an old, classic story, in a highly unlikely setting. The native residents of a small, Bougainvillean island are cut off during the civil war that beset the region in the 1990s. The white residents - nearly all of whom are there due to the presence of the mine at Panguna - have left, except for Mr Watts, an enigmatic Englishman, married to Grace, a native of the island. He takes over as teacher for the local school and begins to read to the students from Great Expectations.

This layered, beautiful novel uses this scenario to craft interweaving notions of storytelling, belonging, identity and conflict. The protagonist is 15-year-old Matilda, and Jones demonstrates considerable skill in so credibly maintaining her perspective as believable and engaging for the reader. While the language is in no way similar to Dickens', there are parallels to be drawn between her story and Pip's: they both lack a father; their lives begin in a closed circle of acquaintance; and they are both given the opportunity, via unexpected means, to move beyond their upbringing to new experiences.

The most worthwhile comparisons and correlations in the novel, however, are not nearly so superficial. Dickens' story is retold multiple times throughout the book and each time is allowed to take on a gravity appropriate to its audience. It shows a fitting reverence for the power of a true classic to engage with and bear relevance for its reader/recipient - whether solitary or as part of an audience - no matter how far removed they are from its source; even so far as the war-torn, sparse Solomon Islands are from hectic Victorian England.

As the endurance of Dickens' story demonstrates, Matilda is not alone in finding herself drawn to Pip. Her connection places a gentle emphasis on the biases we often show towards whom and what we dedicate our concern. Pip's world is removed by centuries and massive cultural shifts from our current consciousness, but, as part of the literary canon, is regardless still integral to many curriculums. In this novel, however, he is presented to us within the context of a far more recent and, for Australasian readers, less geographically removed conflict. Throughout the storyline of Mister Pip, several characters confront and make extremely difficult decisions. What moral decisions do we make when we choose with whom we empathise? The moral high ground is as clear in this novel as it ever can be during war: citizens hold it over the antagonists, but between the opposing sides the military high ground is often far clearer than the moral.

Yet the novel is anything but polemical. Instead the narrative takes the reader on a languid journey, which turns quite brutal at times, yet maintains a steadiness of pace that allows each audience member to uncover their own layers and analogies. Although a theme of the novel is interpretation, both of language and meaning, there is one extremely cumbersome plot shift towards the end of the book, which snapped me momentarily from my languid reverie; I was able to resume it, however, and felt fulfilled at the novel's conclusion.

Addendum: Given the point in the final paragraph about plot shift, I was interested by some comments made by Lloyd Jones in an article in A2 (in The Age), ahead of his appearance at the Melbourne Writers' Festival. To quote directly:

'Jones...is especially suspicious of narrative. When he began Mister Pip, he intended to write a book with no narrative at all..."I was trying to avoid narrative because, when you write it, sometimes it's like a runaway bloody thing, it's voracious, it just wants more of itself," he says...in [earlier novel] Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance Jones slips the rope by refusing to fulfill our expectations of what a fictional narrative will deliver...As readers, we want omniscience; as a writer, Jones refuses to allow it.'

I couldn't shake the jolt of that plot jump - like how your hands keep tingling after your bike tyre hits a pothole at speed - and wondered why it hadn't been smoothed out. From these statements, however, it's clearer that for Jones such a jump is not a negative issue in a novel's progression; absolute congruity is the product of a 'manufactured' story. I still argue that the novel would be improved by way of some roadfill, but having heard Jones' opinion I can surmise that even if it had been flagged by an editor, correcting it would not necessarily have been his priority in the finished product.


  1. Do you feel an educated middle-aged white man convincingly wrote the voice of an uneducated teenage black girl? I've read conflicting reviews.

  2. I felt that he maintained her perspective. It's not so much about language used - he didn't channel her voice and the vernacular of her people - but more what she observed, how she reacted to it, and the thought processes she brought to what was happening to her and the people around her.

    I can understand it receiving mixed reviews. I thought it was a worthy novel, so I'm in the positive camp. But, for example, the plot hole I mention was more of a car-stopping pot hole, so there are elements to criticise.