Mister Pip delicately examines trust, loneliness, divided loyalties, breakdown of civilisation and the futility of a war where babies die because medical supplies have been burnt. The narrator and teenage protagonist of this novel, Matilda, has a voice so strong that it is difficult to imagine it is written by a white middle-aged journalist, Lloyd Jones who was a war correspondent there during the civil war of the 1990’s.
When the war breaks out on Bougainville Matilda and her mother, Dolores, have to learn to look after themselves again as her father, who has been working on the mainland, is now out of their reach. As war intensifies the white colonisers leave the island, meaning the hospitals and schools all have to close. The remaining indigenous families are determined that life should carry on in as normal a manner as possible and agree to send the children back into school. They decide that the only white man left on the island, Mr Watts who is married to a local girl, should teach them.
Mr Watts has always been a slightly comic character to the children. Up until the point where he begins to teach them he is often seen dressed up as a clown, complete with red nose, pulling his wife around on a handcart for reasons nobody understands but that Matilda will eventually discover. He has little teaching experience and determines the best way to educate the children is by reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to them. Matilda’s life and society alters vastly as the older men go to the mainland to work for the White Men and then the younger men disappear into the jungle leaving the women and children to look after themselves. But through this novel all the children find a way to escape from the horror and turmoil of living in a war zone.
Matilda shows a maturity beyond her years as she struggles through puberty and into adulthood. She finds herself wrestling between loyalty for her mother and a natural curiosity about the outside world. Her narrative relates how she reaches maturity as a person and as a reader through reading Great Expectations with Mr Watts who, during the course of the novel becomes a surrogate parent to her.
Throughout the story Matilda manages to stress the importance of language, how semantics and viewpoints can alter even the simplest ideas. She understands that when Pip agrees to steal a pork pie for the convict, Magwitch, it demonstrates the power one person can have over another especially an adult a child. Unfortunately Dolores, a firm believer in the teachings of the bible deems that these new influences and ideas are corrupting her daughter so steals and eventually destroys the book in order to protect her. By doing this she demonstrates to readers of all ages that good people sometimes do wrong things for the right reasons in this exploration of moral values and codes. And when Matildas’ village is burnt down by the rebel soldiers she realises as they work together to rebuild their homes, that the things that keep them apart are also the things that help to keep them unified.
When their only copy of Great Expectations disappears Mr Watts encourages the children to rewrite the text for themselves which is when Matilda realises that they all had different memories and interpretations of the story. Eventually she reaches the mainland where she reads Great Expectations for herself and realises that Mr Watts had omitted to read large chunks of text that he considered unsuitable for them.
This could have been a depressing read but humour is never far away, even at the novels’ darkest points. It is usually the adults who bear the brunt of many of these jokes such as when Matilda’s grandfather meets a white man for the first time and is asked if he has a compass “My grandfather didn’t know what a compass was so he knew he didn’t have one.” Matilda’s narrative is always delivered in a skilful manner which rarely, if ever, tips into feeling self pity for the worsening situation the islanders find themselves in.
The book has received some criticism for the way in which the story speeds up once Matilda leaves her homeland, but I think this speed stylistically demonstrates the way time passes faster as you get older or conversely that time seems never-ending when you are living in a war zone. Its modern day setting makes it quite accessible to today’s young adult readers, whilst its placement is far enough removed from Western Society to cause too much anxiety about the prospect of being thrown to the pigs if discovered supporting the enemy forces. While some events in the novel are quite gruesome, they are not gratuitous in any way and serve to remind everyone of the true horrors of war and none of the characters in this novel are wholly good or bad, not even Matilda.
This novel is not just an exploration of a life lived by people from another culture making it an interesting and insightful read for younger readers but a journey through the history of literary criticism from F.R Levis’ ideal of the words on the page being the only thing that matter to Barthes’ notion that “for the reader to live the author must die”. And as such Mister Pip is a blessing to an English degree student sitting in a cold damp classroom on a miserable Monday morning struggling to come to terms with literary theories for the first time.