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Layers of History

By Margaret Black

Mister Pip

By Lloyd Jones

Dial Press, 256 pages, $20

Reading Lloyd Jones’s new novel Mister Pip is like digging up a small treasure chest on a tropical island and opening it to find an abundance of riches both countless and entirely various.

But first the story. It is the 1990s. The Pacific island of Bougainville has been totally blockaded by military forces from Papua New Guinea. The native inhabitants on Bougainville are fighting for their independence, which the New Guineans, called “redskins” by the ethnically different islanders, intend to deny them. This is one of those vicious little wars where, as the narrator says, “the most unspeakable things happened without once raising the ire of the outside world.” All the white people who didn’t leave when the big copper mines shut down have left now, except for Mr. Watts. As power systems fail and medicines disappear and vehicles must be abandoned for lack of fuel, the local population sinks back into subsistence on local fruits and fish. Their land has always been a paradise, with abundant food, perpetually warm weather, and easy access to material for housing. But the New Guineans have destroyed all the boats they can find, so not much fishing is possible and no escape. The village school is also closed, until Mr. Watts—until now a figure of fun married to a crazy native woman—offers to teach the children.

He has one text, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which he reads aloud, utterly captivating his young class, particularly 13-year-old Matilda, who comes to identify completely with Pip, the novel’s hero. This enrages her mother, who is already hostile to all the ways of white men. White men have ruined her life, she believes, and those of all around her. That the Bible, the only book she values, was also brought to her by white men is a matter she does not examine.

In addition to reading from Dickens and teaching the times tables, Mr. Watts encourages the adult villagers to talk to the children about whatever interests them. Parents speak about how to kill a pig (“get two fat uncles to place a board across its throat”), or the color blue (“Blue belongs to the sky and cannot be nicked, which is why the missionaries stuck blue into the windows of the first churches they built here on the island”), or boiled shells (“fed to first-time mothers to stop the bleeding”), or broken dreams (“Look at all those dead fish with their eyes and mouths open: They can’t believe they are not in the sea and never will be again”). Matilda’s mother, who sees atheist Mr. Watts as the Devil incarnate, mostly comes to talk about faith because she wants to save Matilda’s soul. But she also remembers her own mother’s braids, which were as thick as ropes and supported all the kids when the tide was up and they might stumble on the coral.

All the while the mountains behind the village ring with sporadic gunfire, and helicopters periodically circle the village, looking for boats or native fighters. Whispered tales of atrocities abound, and intermittently, when the redskins make sudden forays into the village, atrocity is no longer rumor. More and more, the boys drift into the jungle to join the local fighters, the “rambos.” Ultimately horrific events sweep Matilda away out into the world, and in a sort of coda to the novel, she comes to acquire a new vision of Dickens, Pip, Mr. Watts, and herself.

What, then, is particularly intriguing about Mister Pip? First, it is a wonderfully concise book that brilliantly brings to light a strange place and people and a highly fraught time. It also offers a truly impressive tribute to the transforming power of imagination.

Mister Pip is more multilayered than baklava. There is the story, narrated by Matilda, that takes place on the present-day Pacific island, and there is the story in 19th-century England that Dickens tells about Pip. And then there is the story of how Dickens’s story is perceived by people who don’t know convict ships, or sleet, or marshes, or blacksmiths, or pork pies. In counterpoint, there are the stories that the villagers tell, including Matilda’s mother, to say nothing of the personal biography that Mr. Watts relates, over several nights like Scheherazade, to stave off total destruction of the village. And ultimately there are the truths that Matilda comes to learn about all these stories.

For those interested in ethnic or Oceanic studies, Mister Pip dramatizes the almost lost but now perhaps reviving cultures of a region once full of heroic mariners capable of sailing the Pacific without any modern navigational aids at all. Grace, Mr. Watts’ native wife, could at one time recite her family history back to a mythical flying fish. Matilda’s mother, so proud of her own strong parents, has watched her husband succumb first to alcohol, then to the white man’s ways of thinking, and finally away from the island altogether to work the mines in Australia. And behind the whole story of cultures in conflict is a tale of copper mines, exploited by European companies that poisoned the land and then departed when profits dwindled, leaving behind a slime of greed that has encouraged Papua New Guinea to squeeze the land for just a bit more.

The author may be a white man, but Lloyd Jones reveals a true ear for speech and a decidedly nuanced understanding of present-day life in Oceania. Mister Pip is a slim book, but it is packed with rewards.

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