I picked up Mister Pip from my TBR list after looking for something a bit more deep than Too Close to Home, but a nice slim alternative to Sunnyside. Needless to say Mister Pip fitted the bill perfectly.
Mister Pip is the story of Matilda, a young girl living on a tropical island called Bougainville plagued by civil war. Each day Matilda and her schoolmates go to hear Mr Watts, the only white man on the island, read from Charles Dickens Great Expectations and they all become absorbed in the adventures of the orphan and emigrant Mister Pip, an escape from the increasingly troubled world in which they live.
Mister Pip, evokes an unlikely mix of the warm tropical landscape of Bougainville alongside the grey and busy streets of Victorian London imagined as best they can by the school children. The story is told almost lightheartedly throughout in a style which reminded me a little of Alexander McCall Smith, but this novel is no jolly adventure. Jones ensures that under all the witty exchanges between characters and descriptions of simple island life, there is an underlying sense of foreboding.
I have to say that although I enjoyed reading the Mister Pip from the beginning, and I certainly didn’t struggle to pick it up, I couldn’t see how it was going to form into the acclaimed novel I was expecting until I was near to finishing it. However this book really crept up on me – while I noticed the darkness bubbling underneath the gentle storytelling style I didn’t expect such a blow to stomach as I got from it. Just one stop from home on the underground, I neared the turning point in the novel and literally my jaw dropped. When I got to the station, instead of walking on I went and sat down with my nose in the pages until I finished it!
One thing I will say is that although you don’t need to understand the background of the situation described in Mister Pip, it might help to know what it refers to. I wasn’t really sure whether it was based on real events until I finished the book and did some googling. Whilst the story is fictional, the context is very real, which I found out by reading History of Bougainville, on trusty Wikipedia.
I felt that Jones was really excellent at painting the characters and describing their own private battles. Dolores for example (Matilda’s mother) who sees the athest Mr Watts as a bad influence on the kids, is frustrating, stubborn and proud but also brave and strong in equal measure. Mr Watts, ‘the last white man on the island’ goes from being seen as a rather odd character ‘Pop Eye’ to being almost revered by the children for the delight he brings to them from his teaching. But then later on you get a completely different perspective, so you see him as kind and weak, loyal to some and disloyal to others. Is he a wonderful person or simply a ‘fantasist’ who is a bit funny in the head? Matilda herself has a very strong voice and I really felt that I could get into her thoughts. At the beginning I felt that she had perhaps a voice that was too mature for her, but when I had read the whole book I didn’t feel this to be the case. In fact her voice grows up with her throughout the novel. One thing that made me smile is that there is almost a whole page where she almost complains about the differences in Mr Watt’s telling of Great Expectation compared to the original story, which I identified as being something that book lover’s do, say when a film comes out that doesn’t match up to their expectations of a book they enjoyed.
The trick of this novel is that it is incredibly readable and charmingly written whilst delivering a powerful punch which really brings home the events that are happening in Bougainville. A quick, original and fulfilling read.
For anyone thinking about doing this for a bookgroup, here are some questions from a handy Mister Pip reading guide that I found on litlovers.com.