10 September 2009

Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip, 2006

This 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner was also favourite for the 2007 Man Booker, but was ultimately beaten by Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Set in Papua New Guinea during the civil war of the early 1990s, Mr. Watts, the only white man on the small island Bougainville, becomes the only schoolteacher for a group of island children and his only realia is a copy of Dickens’s Great Expectations. The pathos starts from page one and there is some admirably sensitive handling of any number of issues that carries that pathos through to the last page, with all the accompanying horrors viewed with an impressive detachment when they arise. The viewpoint of the teenage pupil Matilda is as close to authentic as Jones could reasonably be expected to get, and the three-way tension between her, her distrusting mother and Mr. Watts is to a great extent the dynamo that drives the plot. What Matilda learns from Great Expectations, and from her own life situation, is the important stuff about survival and finding the key that gives you permission to be someone else by the transformative power of fiction. Jones’s writing is clear and uncluttered; the story, including where it unexpectedly ends up, is mostly uplifting and the result is something bittersweet, something that you warm to as well as admire.  PY


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