Everyone called him Pop Eye.
As a Commonwealth Prize winner and shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2007, Mister Pip immediately commands a certain expectation for literary fiction. Set in the 1990s, on a tropical island divided by war and rebellion, the children of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea find solace in the most unlikely place – a novel from a far off world, read to them by the only white man on the island. As Mr Watts reveals to the island the world of Dickens and Pip, our protagonist Matilda soon learns that there may be more found in the pages of the book than just words.
The marriage of rebellion and civil war with a novel about a novel is an interesting balancing act to choose and one that Jones, for the most part, pulls off. His experience as a journalist covering this particular civil war at the time brings authenticity to the narrative voice. There isn’t any compromise of truth or over-sentimentalising the events happening and yet I didn’t find this book particularly hard-hitting. Jones counterbalances the horror of human events with lyrical narrative styling and focuses on a small community on the edge of war. The tale is narrated by an adult Matilda in the form of a recollection (an explanation offered at the end for the unnatural ‘child’ voice throughout) which creates delicate, sometimes dreamlike, quality to the narrative.
Jones expertly manages to instil a strong feeling of community within his divided world. Despite the obvious race and class segregation in Bougainville itself, outside of civil war, there are still strong connections and links woven into the story which gives the community cohesion. For me, because of the strength of the society, there was no condescension in the subject matter of the book. Mr Watts (Pop Eye) is just as lost as the children he teaches, choosing to live and operate in a world of semi-fantasy rather than deal with the realities of his life choices.
With all that said, I just didn’t love this book – it is beautifully written and gives a unique parallel of imagination with reality but I wasn’t desperate to read on and find out more.
Whilst I don’t think Mister Pip will revel in the longevity of Dickens’ original novel, if you enjoy the exploration of cultural exchange and exploration or a book about books then I would suggest you indulge into the world of Mister Pip – if nothing else, it will make you appreciate the power of Great Expectations.