Mister Pip, written by New Zealand born Lloyd Jones is a startling but charming novel. Although published in 2006, Mister Pip has recently come into prominence again both through popular reading and the film adaptation starring Hugh Laurie that was limitedly released last year. The novel is startling in the way you become submersed in the illusion of the fairy-tale, which is then brutally juxtaposed by elements of the island setting.
If you pick up a copy of Mister Pip, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a back cover or insert description of the book. This is purely because the novel is complex and the story within is hard to convey accurately without ruining the illusion and charm. Jones sets the protagonist, a young teenager Matilda in the island setting of Bougainville, but doesn’t quite reveal the time period. It’s centred on this island community and the one Caucasian man in the village, Mr. Watts, who decides to teach the children at the local school when their teacher leaves. The novel also encompasses the brief use of other settings such as Australia and New Zealand that give clues to which time period the novel is set in. You’ll be surprised when you figure out the time period and it will bring clarity to the novel’s relevance.
Mr Watts (and the novel) rely heavily on Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, which essentially shapes the narrative and plot of Mister Pip as well. The fantastic thing about this plot device is that it’s not necessary for the reader to have read or even know of Great Expectations to follow the story. It’s almost an advantage to have not read the classic because it makes for a richer and more unexpected reading. The reader too, is beguiled by the charm of discovering something new along with Matilda and her classmates. Jones is a master of vibrant storytelling; he beautifully weaves simple life lessons amongst the vignettes of the parents, who present a fact to the class each day.
Mr Watts creates an idealistic world where the children’s (and even their parents’) imagination can run wild within the limitations of Great Expectations. Jones too somehow cleverly manages to beguile the reader into the imagined world within the island community. But Jones drags us shockingly back to the brutal truth that is hidden for the majority of the novel and it’s akin to being thrown into cold water. It’s deeply affecting and is probably one of the reasons that Mister Pip is so profound and so compelling. Jones shields and subtly weaves this truth for the majority of the novel through the naivety of the Matilda and the children, much like a parent would do for a child.
Mister Pip is about life. Whether it is the simple island community life on Bougainville or the life of Pip in Victorian England, it bleeds every aspect of life through its pages. Whether charming and beautiful, or brutal and tragic; they all go hand in hand in this triumphant paragon of blended literature.