Sunday, July 01, 2007

Beguiled by Mr Pip

I started reading this book with a sense of trepidation. It all stemmed from the well-worded blurb which produced a sense of dread in me (very similar to how I felt reading Ian McEwan's "Atonement").

Mister Pip is written by Kiwi author Lloyd Jones and is set in a village on a Pacific Island (which I've googled and discovered to be Bougainville) sometime in the 1990s. Civil war has broken out, and the villagers live on a machete-edge of tension - on one side there is the Papua New Guinean army (whom they mockingly term 'redskins') and on the other, the rebels or 'rambos', made up of young men from the villages.

Enter the protagonist Matilda, a young village girl on the cusp of puberty, her dogmatic mother, living with the knowledge that her beer-bellied husband is living the Aussie immigrant lifestyle as a miner in Townsville, and the only white man left in the village, Mr Watts. When the school is closed down due to the blockade imposed by the army, Mr Watts takes it upon himself to take on the role of vilage teacher, and he does so by reading aloud to the kids Dickens' Great Expectations, a chapter a day.

To the children, the story of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham are as real as the violence that forms the backdrop to their lives. Matilda's imagination, especially, is set aflame and she writes down PIP in the sand one day. When the soldiers see the name, they demand to know who Pip is, and their search to find him (and this is the bit in the blurb that caused the dread) "will have devastating consequences for all".

Aside from the obvious theme of escapism via imagination and storytelling, Mr Pip is foremost a story about narratives. Of course, Dickens' universally-loved story Great Expectations, is the behemoth which imbues the other narratives - from Matilda's mother's life story and unshakable Christian beliefs propogated in "the good book," to the tale that Mr Watts spins for seven nights to stay the imminent violence, which in itself alludes to Scheherezade's 101 nights, and finally, to Matilda's tale, which frames the entire novel.

It is, as its backcover touts, "a love song to the power of the imagination and of storytelling. It shows how books can change lives." It also a tribute to peace, and how the human soul can transcend unspeakable horrors and violence through art and a shared memory of the stories that resonate with the human condition. For Matilda, Great Expectations becomes her life story and passion, and she devotes her life to the study of it, and through that, is able to overcome the tragedies she has witnessed.

Oh, and it was also pretty cool to see our ex-hometown Wellington featured as a backdrop. Jones' description of Wellington in December was spot-on.

A wind hurled itself at trees, at people. Paper - I have never seen so much wind-blown paper - it blew across the tarmac, it stuck in the overhead pylons.

Reading the passage triggered a series of vivid memories for me, of D's and my bracing walking home from work every day, of emerging from a warm pub after quiz night to the blustery cold, and eating brunch at an outdoor cafe always watchful in case the wind snatched a piece of bacon away. Gosh, I don't think about it much but when I do, I miss the life there (wind and all)!

As for Mister Pip, thought it started out iffy for me, I ended up loving it. Read it if you get the chance.


maree said...

Thought you might!

Lauren Keenan said...

I spent the first third of the book disliking it as I found it patronising and simplistic, and was worried it would be a "white man teaches ignorant natives white stories and their lives are enriched when they learn about white culture" type book. However, I too loved it by the end and a month later it is still in my head. Lauren

Ferunk said...

Exactly - I was really undecided until I realised just what a fallible character Mr Watts was - that's when I thought "there's more to this". So glad to find someone else who lived it! I have some pretty erm, vivid images seared in my head now. Kinda disturbing, but I'm really glad I read it :)