Monday, September 10, 2007

Bookerblogging: Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip

Okay, so this is sort of cheating, and it is also an experiment. I'm too busy to write any but light-hearted / short / batty / photographic blog posts at the moment so here instead, for those who follow these things more closely than I am currently doing, is the review I wrote last September for the SMH of New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones's novel Mister Pip, shortlisted (trust the Poms at the Times to describe New Zealand as "nowhere", but the article itself is good) for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. I don't even know whether stuff written for the MSM is likely to work as a blog post or not. Guess I'm about to find out. Ahem:

What, you might well ask, can the 1861 London publication of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations possibly have to do with Papua New Guinea’s blockade of Bougainville in the early 1990s? What chance hinge connects these two wildly disparate things, with so much time and distance between them?

New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ hypnotic novel is set on the island of Bougainville after the blockade has been imposed and all the doctors and teachers have left the islanders to fend for themselves. There is only one white man left: Mr Watts is known to the children as Pop Eye and is married to the mad and mysterious Mrs Watts, a native of the island, whom he met in New Zealand and has followed home.

The schoolchildren have been left with no teacher and Mr Watts is asked to step in. He agrees, but he has only one book from which to teach: an old copy of Great Expectations.

The story is told by Matilda, one of the children, who almost immediately becomes enchanted with Dickens’ Pip; she writes his name in the sand and decorates it with shells. Neither Matilda nor the reader can possibly foresee the appalling consequences this will have.

This novel about another novel is a skilful allegory of colonisation, using Great Expectations in some of the same ways as Jean Rhys used Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea. Peter Carey’s 1997 novel Jack Maggs is another useful point of comparison, taking as it did the character of Magwitch the convict from Great Expectations as its central idea.

For the people of the island, as represented by the young narrator Matilda, there is little to choose between the oppressive army of ‘redskins’ and the rebel ‘rambos’. They all look alike to the children: mad and dangerous enemies whose motivations cannot be fathomed and whose actions cannot be foreseen. Matilda narrates throughout with a kind of deadpan matter-of-factness that, as the book progresses, comes to look more and more like a symptom of shock.

Shortly after Mr Watts has finished reading the book to the entranced children, it goes missing. He sets them the exercise of trying to re-create it: each time one of them remembers a moment, a scene or a phrase from the novel, he writes it down in an exercise book he has been miraculously able to save from the wreckage of his own and everyone else’s possessions. This echoes yet another widely-read 20th century novel – no doubt deliberately, since this is very much a novel about other novels – in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which features a group of characters who in an era of book-burning have committed one book each to memory.

As Jones has pointed out himself, this act of willed, group recollection is an image of the colonial experience, where the old-world culture is desperately but imperfectly remembered. It also gives the reader an idea of what that experience of extreme isolation and danger might be like. ‘I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every fragment I managed to retrieve,’ says Matilda. ‘Otherwise, I have no sense of time passing in the normal way. Along with medicines and our freedom, the blockade stole time from us.’

Jones has done something very difficult with this novel: he has taken a recent and brutal piece of contemporary history and has told a story that not only reveals these events to the wider world but also shows what they mean in the larger and more abstract field of human behaviour. A brutal and senseless episode – the atrocities committed during the Bougainville blockade have been compared with events in Rwanda -- becomes something from which a lesson may be learned.

It’s also a novel about imagination and about the power and value of art as a potentially redemptive force in a nightmare situation. Pip gives Matilda a focus for an increasingly precarious and fragile life: ‘I had come to know this Pip as if he were real and I could feel his breath on my cheek. I had learned to enter the soul of another.’ It’s not really a plot spoiler to reveal that eventually Matilda makes it out of there alive, for, if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be around to tell the tale. And Dickens eventually gives her a way to emulate Pip and ‘better herself’ in life.

For so brutal a reminder of atrocities so close to home, this is still an oddly satisfying book that goes on resonating long after you get to the end. It helps to read up on the history of the Bougainville blockade, though that’s not a happy experience for any Australian with a conscience. And it will almost certainly lead you back to read Great Expectations again – or perhaps for the first time.


fifi said...

Reading your review is as good as reading the book, I do declare. Splendid.

I am racing out to get Mister Pip. I loved both G. E and Jack Maggs, I read GE so may times that when I saw the BBC version of it I was astonished to see how much of my own visual imagining was realised. It was like watching your own thoughts.

I wonder if it will win?

(I am trying not to read the ian mcewan one because I usually have some awful self revelation after i read his books.)

Pavlov's Cat said...

If you already know GE and Jack Maggs then Mr Pip will be a really rich read for you. I love your reason for not reading McEwan -- I know exactly what you mean, though of course that self-revelation thing is one of the signs of an exceptional fiction writer. Saturday was really brilliant -- haven't yet read On Chesil Beach though.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

I read this book a few months ago, back when it was getting good reviews in the paper and that's about all the attention it had. I can't say how pleased I am at the Booker nomination and all the steam that that's now generating.

fifi said...

Oh, Saturday i loved.
The book object was affixed to my left hand until i read the very last page.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I wanted to thank you for stopping faffing around with cats and blogs and getting that J.M. Coetzee review in to the Australian on time.

I'd not got around to reading him and it energised me to go out and get all his books from the library. So far I'm enjoying him.

Re MSM writing and blogs. A quick squiz at this post says yes there does seem to be a different tone.

I think it works - because of your intro. Without the intro it might jar a bit.

Kathleen said...

Well, I have to go and get this now, don't I? Sounds amazing, thanks for the review.

On a related, but side, issue: I am 150 pages from the end of Bleak House. I may be the only person alive who didn't watch the recent miniseries but...I CANNOT put this book down. It's making me want to re-read GE AND David Copperfield, and perhaps even have another go at Hard Times. (Ashamed to say I couldn't do it last time I tried.)

I feel quite gypped that I have to earn a living when I could be finding out how all the strands will be drawn together. Argh.