This is not the first time I’ve read Lloyd Jones’ novel Mister Pip. For a class called Dead or Alive: the Novel, we had to read Mister Pip with this question in mind; is the novel dead? Although we never did answer the question, I could not get this novel out of my mind. It has stuck with me for two years now. Since I felt like I had so much to say about it, I eventually chose it as the main subject of my dissertation, which I will not bore the reader with.
Mister Pip is the story of a girl called Matilda. She lives on the island of Bougainville during the civil war. All the teachers have fled the island, so the children have nothing to do all day, until the only white man still left in the little village decides to start teaching. During his lessons, he reads the children Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In the world of Victorian England, the children find a way to escape the struggles of daily life, even when the war comes closer and closer to the village.
I did some research on the civil war the story is set in (and with “doing research” I mean I’ve read the Wikipedia page). The opening of a mine in Bougainville caused a flood of immigrants from Australia and Papua New Guinea to come to the island. A group of Bougainville natives saw tensions surrounding the mine as results of racial issues. A civil war broke out between the black natives of the island, and the “redskins” of Papua New Guinea, who were supported by the white Australians. It was a very bloody war, as it was the cause of death for 25% of the Bougainville population. At the start of the novel the war is not as explicitly depicted as it will be later on, but the tension is always there.
The novel is beautifully written. At times I almost felt like I was on the island, in the little village myself. However, there was one element that wasn’t quite right with me. It is made clear from the beginning that the narrator of the story is an older Matilda, recalling her experiences on the island. However, the story was narrated as if by an 11 year old, even though it is clear Matilda is much older at the time. This was more of a conscious critique on the novel after reading, although it wasn’t bothering me while I was reading.
The characters are what eventually really sold me on this novel. I was absolutely in love with Matilda. Like Matilda who identifies with Pip, even though he is a white boy from Victorian England and they seemingly have nothing in common with each other, I identified with Matilda in the same way. While I was reading, she was such an approachable character, I felt like we could have been friends in some other life. The main factor in this being that she, like me, escaped real life in stories.
The other characters in the novel, Mr. Watts, Matilda’s mother, the other children, they all felt so approachable and so real, it was clear that this was the result of beautiful storytelling.