Dial Press, 256 pages, $20
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
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,
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.
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.