My father had a rubbery mouth — from all that fat laughter of his, I guess. My lips were thinner, like my mum’s, sharpened from making judgments. I traced my eyes but they just felt like my eyes. I found my ears. I have large ears and I will never lose them. They are listening ears. According to my mum, my dad had only ever used his to listen to his own booming laughter.
Young Matilda Laimo lives on the island of Bougainville. The world recognises Bougainville as part of Papua New Guinea, but the residents of that island don’t see it that way; their skins are darker than those of the ‘redskins’ across the water, and the sounds of helicopters and gunfire never quite blend in with the island’s sounds of tropical birds. It is a little after 1990 — no one really keeps track of the date in the village — and Bougainville has been blockaded by the Papua New Guinean Government after a mining dispute that recursively turned bloody. Hardship reigns on the island, though there are still fruits in the trees and fish in the sea. Mosquitoes infect babies with malarial fevers, the generator no longer works, and it’s been a long time since anyone saw any canned food. There aren’t any shoes in Bougainville; the villagers’ clothes are slowly becoming rags.
Mr Watts is the only white man in Bougainville. He’s mysterious and funny looking: the kids call him Pop Eye, because of his constantly surprised eyes. His wife, Grace, is a native of the island. The kids watch him cart her around on a makeshift litter — him wearing a red nose, and her sitting utterly quiet. It’s a huge surprise and big news when Mr Watts offers to teach the children, who haven’t had a school for years. His only text is Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Every day he reads to them from the book, and they soon get caught up in the tale of Pip, Magwitch and Estella. Matilda, especially, feels more than simply enchanted by the book. She feels that Pip is a friend, someone whom she understands, though he cannot reciprocate. But the book is destroyed by the redskins, along with the islanders’ possessions and houses. The teacher’s solution is for the class to attempt to remember Pip’s story themselves.
Lloyd Jones’s light, sweet prose is utterly unpretentious. It’s not without interest, either; Matilda’s straightforward voice is studded every now and then with non-linear impressions that feather obliquely away. Matilda is charming and Mr Watts even more so, with his old-world esteem for the trope of the gentleman. If anything, they’re too perfect: as a child, Matilda constantly makes brave choices in order to protect her mother, while Mr Watts’ invitation to his pupils’ parents to teach the children what they know about life brings out the best in most of them. He is a gentleman, the most keen representation of that figure I can remember from recent literature.
Perhaps that’s why it took me a long time to start liking this book — it required a huge mode switch. I tend to read about damaged, imperfect characters (in between reading about forest sprites). I like being privy to others’ perverseness and rage, their lack and inebriation. I like problem children. But Matilda is not a problem child. Though her circumstances are tough, the purity of her character never stains. Jones’s is generous literature, and his lens picks up objects from their fairest angles. And this makes sense in the context of Mister Pip, for it is a novel that turns on the tough axis of morality. Not the shades-of-grey, multilateral and word-obscured morality that readers of postmodern fiction or even the newspaper are used to. No media, no agents, no intermediaries: nothing interrupts the life/death paradigm in Jones’s Bougainville.
Matilda’s mother, Dolores, is another kind of person entirely. Bristling with prejudice against Mr Watts on account of his difference and lack of religion, she heads the islanders’ resistance to the outsider’s overtures. Pride and fortitude bolster her against the loneliness of her husband’s long-ago departure to the mines of Australia. Though her aggressions towards the teacher bear out her desire to protect her daughter, it is Matilda who ends up protecting her, with painful and calamitous results for the entire community. In terms of the narrative, Dolores is a crucial character, Jones’s most bitter brightside. But she’s not portrayed quite richly enough to bear the burden as literary fulcrum. This is a problem: she’s a significant character.
Nevertheless, my ambivalence eventually lost its tenacity, because there’s a lot to admire in Mister Pip. First is the way in which the reader is able, through Matilda’s receptivity to the great work of Dickens, to re-experience discovering the power of literature. When Matilda spells out ‘Pip’ in seashells on the beach, it could be any reader’s memory, no matter what their first book or the context of their first reading experiences. Second is Jones’s deeply figured exploration of just what the power of literature is. Great Expectations is many things to Matilda, her family and friends: book, story, repository, scapegoat, disappointment, teacher, enemy, ashes. In some circumstances it assists; in others, divides; and in still others, it destroys. Thus, Mister Pip is not just about a book; it is about all books, and all that books can be.
Mister Pip is a book of the Pacific, of stories and of strength. Amidst the strangeness that can suffuse the distances between people of different races, Matilda and her teacher make decisions that are immensely selfless and relentlessly moral, notwithstanding that Bougainville’s residents have little choice in the tragedy that befalls them. As such, this novel tells a moving story about a part of the world even its neighbours know little about. With his soft, deft prose limning concerns that would easily attract any engaged reader, Lloyd Jones has created an affecting book well worth such a reader’s attention.