Mister Pip (by Lloyd Jones)

I've never heard of Lloyd Jones. This isn't the kind of book I would have picked up, as it's not in a genre I generally read, and the cover didn't particularly appeal to me. But a friend lent it to me, and every so often I do like to read something a little different from my normal light historical or women's fiction.

Mister Pip' is set in the island of Bougainville, part of Papua New Guinea, during the civil war of the late 1980s. Mr Watts is the only white person in the district. He's an eccentric and likeable man married to Grace, one of the island's previous top students whom he met in Australia. As the book opens, we read about Mr Watts - otherwise known as Pop-eye - wearing a red nose and wheeling his wife about in a trolley. She is believed to be crazy.

Mr Watts takes on the role of teacher to the children of the district, amidst the rumours of war and threat of both 'redskins' and rebels. The story is related by Matilda, a fourteen-year-old girl, who in her turn is one of Mr Watts' top students.

Mr Watts uses 'Great Expectations' as an introduction to literature and language, reading aloud a section each day to the class, who are totally engrossed. But it's used for more than that; the whole book uses it as a theme for the book, and Matilda becomes more and more involved with the person of Pip who stars in the story.

When the book is lost, the students are encouraged to recall 'fragments' and build up their own joint picture of the book; this theme, too, is repeated within the novel as children's parents share their fragments of wisdom with the class, and at other times when people gather together their fragments of memories about people or situtions.

I suppose I learned something about this island and its people, and also about some of the horrors of the war - something which had pretty much escaped my notice. But the book was written in the kind of style that entirely failed to move me, even when it was shocking towards the end. I don't like violence of any sort, but the narration is so flat, avoiding any strong emotion, that I felt much the same.

I suspect I don't really get 'literary fiction': this book has been highly acclaimed by critics, and was on the Man Booker prize shortlist. It is undoubtedly original. However the characterisation was poor, mainly caricatured or two-dimensional, and the descriptions were not very engaging.

Then the ending tried to tie up a lot of ends in a somewhat implausible way. I like endings to be neat and tidy, but found some of these rather disappointing.

On the whole I'm glad I read 'Mister Pip', but it's not really my kind of book and I doubt if I will read it again.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 1st February 2009

1 comment:

M. L. Kiner said...
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