“You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”
This lovely (and so true) quote is from “Mister Pip”, Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize written by Mr. Lloyd Jones of New Zealand.
If Pip sounds familiar to you that you’ve probably read “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens and coincidence is surely not accidental. I must admit I’m not in that group as I haven’t read Mr. Dickens’ novel and at first I was afraid that will have an impact on reading (and fully understanding) this novel however I was wrong. I might even shamefully admit that not knowing story of Disken’s Pip was actually advantage so that I could easily jump in the shoes of (barefoot!) Matilda, our 13 year old narrator.
The plot is settled on tropical island Bougainville, Papua New Guinea during civilian war which is approaching to the part of the island where they are. Central character of the novel is a teacher who is named Mr. Watts, Bougainville’s only white resident. As a consequence of the war life on the island’s village is changing and one of the greatest change for our young narrator is that the school is closed since the teacher has left the island. Until one morning Matilda’s mother yelled “Get up Matilda! You’ve got school today!” since Mr. Watts decided to help the village and children by taking the role of the school teacher. At the very beginning he admits that he’s no educated to be a teacher and that there’ll be questions on which he will not be able to give answers but he promises that he’ll do his best to be a good teacher. Since there is no formal education to be had, he improvises the curriculum that comes most easily to him: with “Great Expectations”, which, incidentally, is the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens” and he starts reading one chapter per day feeding children’s hungry imagination and giving them a ticket into another world, so different than the one they live in.
As the students’ interest mounts, so do their parents’ misconceptions. Told of the new importance of a Mr. Dickens on the island, the parents send in requests that Mr. Dickens procure antimalaria tablets, generator fuel, beer, wax candles and so on.
Eventually parents decided to give their contribution to the education of their children. So we can be thought that “trust crabs first and above all others” or “to kill an octopus, bite it above the eyes,” and so on but of course this can’t last forever, especially not on the island where is raging civilian war. Under this circumstance the impact of “Great Expectations” on the life of children (Matilda) is even greater: it gives her a shelter because “Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something.”
And I’m afraid this is the place where book is lessening its impact because the dramatic events weren’t dramatic whatsoever. I don’t know why; maybe that ascetic narration was precisely what Mr. Jones wanted avoiding by it all possible melodramatic elements. However for me it was just too fast and too flat.
As I said the plot is settled on the tropical island in South Pacific but the story is universal, the only local spice might be the stories about crabs and octopuses and when I said that I don’t mean in negative way. Dicken’s novel introduces the life in Victorian England to Matilda, while Jones’ novel introduces me the life on Bougainville during the civil conflicts and I would love that I could say that this is world removed from me as much as Victorian England is removed from Matilda. However I am familiar with the horrors of civilian war and that might be the reason why geography is irrelevant with “Mister Pip”. This is story about life on some remote island, it’s not about broken families and lost of the love ones; it’s not even about horrors of war … “Mister Pip” is “a love song to the power of the imagination and of storytelling. It shows how books can change lives.”