When an uprising on the small island of Bougainville, part of Papua New Guinea, leads to the school in Matilda’s village being left with no teacher, the one white man in the village, Mr Watts, takes on the role. Unqualified, he decides to inspire the children’s imaginations by reading them a chapter of Great Expectations each day. He also invites the mothers of the village to come to class and impart nuggets of local wisdom. But the uprising is coming ever nearer and soon violence will sweep into the village, changing life for some of the characters irrevocably…
This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2007. Astonishing. I can only assume this was for the worthiness of the message rather than any literary merit. The message is simple: literature provides a means to interpret life and to escape from reality. Oh, and war is hell.
I’ve said this before but clearly Mr Jones wasn’t paying attention. If, when you start to write your novel, you decide to constantly remind your readers of one of the greatest writers of all time, you’d better be sure your own writing will bear up to the inevitable comparisons. Jones not only reminds us of Great Expectations, he spends much of his book recounting large swathes of that one in grossly simplified terms. Even although Great Expectations is one of my least favourite Dickens’ novels, I spent most of my time wishing I was reading it rather than this. Where Dickens is marvellously imaginative, Jones is not. Where Dickens uses language with a lush extravagance, Jones does not. Where Dickens creates characters who, although exaggerated, contain an essential truth, Jones does not.
Not content with reminding us of Dickens, Mister Pip has many of the elements of the Dead Poets Society running through it too – the teacher who opens his pupils’ minds to a new way of thinking through unconventional teaching methods. I always found that film mawkish, and Mr Watts comes over as no more credible than the Robin Williams’ character. Heart Of Darkness pops up too in a rather odd way – since the book is written from the perspective of Matilda, one of the native islanders, it struck me as clumsily colonial that the most important, most influential character should be the one white man.
I’m really not a believer in the ‘write what you know’ school of thought. I believe all authors should be allowed to imagine themselves into different genders, races, cultures, ages, etc., if they choose. I prefer to say you should ‘know what you write’; that is, do your research, get beneath the skin of your characters, make them speak and think and act as they would rather than as you would. So in principle I have no problem with a middle-aged white man writing in the voice of a teenage black girl from an entirely different culture to his own. However, I never for one moment felt that the voice of Matilda rang true. In Great Expectations, Dickens writes as Pip, but tells us about his childhood in retrospect using an adult voice. Jones can’t seem to make up his mind – sometimes Matilda’s voice is clearly that of an educated adult looking back, but sometimes he tries to create a teenage voice for her and fails badly by allowing her to be aware of things her life experience would not have revealed to her at that time.
There were so many things that annoyed me about this. Matilda mentions her blackness about a million times, leaving me to wonder if black people living in almost exclusively black communities with little or no contact with the outside world really talk about their black arms, black skin, black feet, all the time. As a white child growing up in an exclusively white community, I certainly have no recollection of ever thinking of myself as white. Every time Matilda reminded me that she was black, it had the odd effect of reminding me that the author was white – he seemed more fascinated by Matilda’s skin colour than I could believe she ever would have been. I remember reading somewhere Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying that she never thought of herself as black until she went to live in America.
Then there’s the stuff Jones doesn’t explain, and the bits we’re presumably supposed to accept without thinking through how unrealistic they are. Matilda acts as interpreter at points between Mr Watts and various Papuans. How did this teenage girl who has never left her village and who has had a basic education at the local school acquire this ability? Why her, rather than any of the other kids who grew up alongside her? She finds it hard to explain the meaning of ‘black shoe polish’ to the villagers but oddly has no difficulty with the concept of ‘the coats of parking attendants’.
Pah! Enough! The story itself is fine – a straightforward account of the devastating effects of living through a brutal war. It therefore has some graphically violent scenes which some readers may find disturbing although, given the context, I didn’t feel they were inappropriate or overdone. (If anything, I felt he copped out in the end, choosing to avoid the worst brutality at the expense of realism.) But overall, I found little to admire in this one and find it hard to recommend.