Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones
Mister Pip
(Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007)

A work of extraordinary imagination as seen through the eyes of a 13 year old girl in Bougaineville, Solomon Islands in 1990. Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea is attacking the island.

On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, from which the teachers have fled with almost everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. While artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination — it turns out — is a dangerous thing.

… According to Port Moresby we are one country. According to us we are black as the night. The soldiers looked like people leached up out of the red earth. That’s why they were known as redskins.

News of war arrives as bits of maybe and hearsay. Rumor is its mistress. Rumor, which you can choose to believe or ignore. We heard that no one could get in or out. We didn’t know what to make of that, because how could you seal off a country? What would you tie it up in or wrap around it? We didn’t know what to believe, then the redskin soldiers arrived, and we learned about the blockade.

We were surrounded by sea, and while the redskins’ gunboats patrolled the coastline their helicopters flew overhead. There was no newspaper or radio to guide our thoughts. We relied on word of mouth. The redskins were going to choke the island and the rebels into submission. That’s what we heard. “Good luck to them,” said my mum. That’s how much we cared. We had fish. We had our chickens. We had our fruits. We had what we had always had. In addition to that, a rebel supporter could add, “we had our pride.” [p. 9-10]

The Englishman arrives and comences to teach them by reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:

In the tropics night falls quickly. There is no lingering memory of the day just been. One moment you can see the dogs looking skinny and mangy. In the next they have turned into black shadows. If you are not ready with candles and kerosene lamps, the quick fall of night is like being put away in a dark cell, from where there is no release until the following dawn.

During the blockade we could not waste fuel or candles. But as the rebels and redskins went on butchering one another, we had another reason for hiding under the cover of night. Mr. Watts had given us kids another world to spend the night in. We could escape to another place. It didn’t matter that it was Victorian England. We found we could easily get there. It was just the blimmin’ dogs and the blimmin’ roosters that tried to keep us here.

By the time Mr. Watts reached the end of chapter one I felt like I had been spoken to by his boy Pip. This boy who I couldn’t see to touch but knew by ear. I had found a new friend.

The surprising thing is where I’d found him — not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears, the bad people spoke like pirates. I think Mr. Watts enjoyed the spoken parts. When he spoke them he became the voices. That’s another thing that impressed us — for the time he was reading, Mr. Watts had a way of absenting himself. And we forgot all about him being there. When Magwitch, the escaped convict, threatened to rip out Pip’s heart and liver if he doesn’t bring him some food, and a file for his leg irons, we didn’t hear Mr. Watts, we heard Magwitch, and it was like the convict was in the classroom with us. We had only to close our eyes to be sure. [pp. 23-24]

Mr. Pip becomes alive:

… Pip was the beneficiary of a lot of money set aside by someone who wished to keep their identity a secret. The money would be used to turn Pip into a gentleman. So he was about to change into something.

When I first heard that I fretted to the end of the chapter. I needed to see what he would change into before I could be sure we would remain friends. I didn’t want him to change. [p. 53]

The troops, the dreaded invaders come:

An old dog had its belly ripped open. We stared at that dog, and thought about a story Gilbert’s father had brought from further up the coast where most of the fighting was going on. Now we knew what a human being split open would look like. There was no need to wonder anymore. To stare at that black dog was to see your sister or brother or mum or dad in that same state. You saw how disrespectful the sun could be, and how dumb the palms were to flutter back at the sea and up at the sky. The great shame of trees is that they have no conscience. They just go on staring. [p. 40]

… I was giving Mr. Watts time to wake up properly, when the redskin soldiers filed out of the dark jungle. Their uniforms were torn, and many of them wore bandages. Their faces looked drained. I now know what kind of person those blank faces are attached to. Their mouths are irritable and sour. They hardly looked at us. [p. 201]

Disaster follows.

A woman’s book this but it has the feeling of a haunted environment ready to disappear in an instant.

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