Book Review: 2007 Short Listed: Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip

Mister_PipRating: 4.5
Mister Pip
A Novel by Llloyd Jones
2006 / 272 Pages

The Setup: In a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives.

On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most 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. (from the hardcover edtion)


This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 05/18/2011

If you’re the type of person who loves reading books that are all about the love of books then Mister Pip is the novel you’ve been waiting for. Leave your copy of The Book Thief in a random location for someone else to stumble upon (honestly, what do I know, I still haven’t read it), run your copy of The Shadow of the Wind through an industrial strength shredder (trust me, it’s nowhere near as good as people claim it is) and prepare to embrace the world as presented through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old girl named Matilda.

Though it’s never explicitly stated, one can easy infer from the descriptions given that Matilda lives on the island of Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean. The novel takes place in the early nineteen-nineties, a time in which a violent civil war was fought over the ownership of the islands’ copper rich mines. As a result of this struggle for power, all of the white people inhabiting the island flee for the greener pastures of nearby countries such as Australia and New Zealand. All except one that is, the eccentric Mr. Watts, a man the locals refer to as Pop Eye.

When there’s no one left to teach at the schoolhouse, it’s Mr. Watts who steps in to fill the void and his first order of business is to introduce the children to Mr. Charles Dickens’ finest work, the novel Great Expectations. Each day he reads aloud one chapter to the class, stopping as needed to define unfamiliar words or explain foreign concepts to the young sponges seated within the schoolhouse walls who are all too eager to absorb the tale of young Pip and landscape of early 1800’s England.

At this point, I need to take a moment to state for the record that I loathe Great Expectations. It’s my least favorite of Dickens’ novels and I can easily pinpoint why. I was assigned the book as forced summer reading for an English class between my freshmen and sophomore years of High School. I loved to read even back then, but having that title, or any title for that matter, thrust upon me at that age, when I was desperately struggling for control over as many aspects of my life as possible, even though I wasn’t quite old enough yet to manage on my own, made the task of reading it a wholly unenjoyable experience. Needless to say, I started my first week of school that year failing the summer reading exam. Years later I’d return to the novel and try again, but the damage had been done.

Had I known prior to being recommended the novel that Great Expectations played such a major role in the narrative I would have never picked it up to read and that would have been a tsunami-sized shame, because through Mister Pip author Lloyd Jones has taken the classic Dickens’ novel and utilized it in not just one, but multiple inspiring ways.

On the surface Mr. Watts is reading the novel to the children to sweep them into another land, one that exists separate and far away from their war torn lives. Dig deeper and you’ll discover the novel isn’t just about Great Expectations, but it’s about the important role that storytelling plays in all of our everyday lives. Mr. Watts invites each of the children’s mothers to school to share their own unique knowledge and insights with the class. Dig deeper still and you’ll find Jones pitting Dickens versus God in a high stakes battle for the minds of the young islanders. Matilda’s mother Delores thinks Mr. Watts teaching of Dickens is blasphemous and the two quietly wrestle with one another for ownership over what Matilda should believe.

Add the backdrop of the violent civil war taking place and a shocking twist or two into the mix and you’ve got yourself one hell of thought provoking novel. The title again? Mister Pip. Don’t write that down. Go get a copy. Now.

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4 comments

  1. You probably know this but there’s a movie of this book in post-production at the moment starring Hugh Lawrie. It was filmed in Bougainville with Bougainvilleans playing all the other parts too. Lloyd Jones has also set up a trust to build a library in Arawa, Bougainville as well, so the connection between the people of Bougainville and this book is very strong!

  2. No problems! I wrote a thesis on the peace process there and visited last year – just missed seeing Hugh though. It’s a crazy place, still quite dangerous in parts but it’s beautiful and the people are really friendly and welcoming 🙂

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