Mr. Pip, written by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones, may just be the best thing you’ll read in 2008. The setting is one of the Solomon Islands, now part of New Guinea, but called Bougainville in the novel. Within the parameters of Jones’ story, the island is the antithesis of what we might imagine a “tropical island” to be. Bougainville represents loss. In the grip of a civil war, the white owners of the copper mine have closed it down and along with the missionaries, nurses and teachers they have fled Bougainvillefor the safety of New Zealand and Australia. Even some native mine workers, lured by better jobs and shallow promises to return when the war ends, have left their families. The father of the novel’s protagonist, thirteen-year old Matilda, is among those who have fled the island.
The only white man remaining in Matilda’s village is a Mr. Watts who refuses to leave his ailing wife, native-born Grace. Watts is a strange man of immense eccentricity, who not only stays but appoints himself village teacher. Is he a professional teacher? Not at all; nevertheless, he comes to the abandoned schoolhouse prepared to teach what he might, armed with the profound belief that much of what the children will need to know in life, especially at this time of great upheaval, can be found in his copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Ah, I hear you murmur, that Mr. Pip.
The children are spellbound in their introduction to Victorian England, a place far away from the dangerous place they call home. As Matilda explains it, “Mr. Watts had given us kids another world to spend the night in.” What is night like for the families in Matilda’s village? “In the Tropics night falls quickly. 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.”
The dramatic changes that occur within Mr. Dickens’ story are foreshadowings of the changes likely to occur in the life of Matilda and her friends. Can fiction, can art, make that kind of difference? Mr. Watts believes it. Matilda’s mother, on the other hand, is convinced Watts is leading the children astray. She is a steely devoted Christian who believes all that Matilda needs can be found in the Bible, not in some novel.
I don’t want to give away the story. What is amazing is that in fewer than 260 pages, Jones sets our imaginations soaring. Matilda grows as dear to the readers of this novel as Pip becomes to Matilda through her reading of Great Expectations. The battle between Matilda’s mother and Mr. Watts for control of Matilda’s soul rages as fiercely as the battle between the rebels and the redskins for control of the island.
Just as Pip, in Great Expectations has a benefactor, so too, does Matilda. By the time Mr. Watts finds himself reading the story to a marauding gang of rebels (young natives all war-spent), we begin to make connections between Dickens’ characters and various villagers. We begin to see ourselves as well. Jones brings his multilayered tale of the power of imagination and art to a crushing climax that will leave the reader agog. The result of the climax is Matilda’s epilogue. Mysteries are unraveled, frailties forgiven, and hope secured. This is a novel to be read and reread. The writing is beautiful, the plot singular and the satisfaction for the reader immeasurable.