Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Inevitable comparisons…

😐 😐

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.

Book 8 of 20

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.

Lloyd Jones

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.

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43 thoughts on “Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

  1. Oh how disappointing. I’ve been waiting eagerly for your thoughts on this one, hoping it would augment my travels through Dickens but clearly not. On the bright side – one less book I have to read! 😂

    • I didn’t find it at all insightful about Dickens – I felt, to be honest, that he’d merely used Great Expectations to pull in lots of readers who might not otherwise have been attracted to it. So, having succeeded in sucking me in, he can’t complain about my mean review, can he? 😉

  2. A couple of the points you make really resonate with me, FictionFan. One is credibility. I really like a story to be believable even if, as you mention, the author comes from a different background. I noticed other points, too, in your review, where the book just doesn’t seem authentic.. And character voices are a part of that. So…. No, thanks

    • Yes, plenty of authors can think themselves into a character very different from themselves, but here I didn’t think he got inside the girl’s head at all. Overall, a disappointment, and although he was being sympathetic to the Papuans it still came over as patronising and colonial. Oh well!

  3. That’s disappointing. On paper, this sounds an interesting book, but I wouldn’t be able to take a book seriously, if the writer had little or no real life connection with his/her characters. Great review!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I thought the blurb sounded good too, but I’m afraid I never believed in the main character, nor in a lot of the secondary ones. Maybe he thought writing it from the perspective of the black teenager rather than the white man would come over as less colonial, but it didn’t!

    • I wish I loved Great Expectations but I was forced to analyse it to death at Uni and it destroyed it for me. I didn’t feel this one had anything insightful to say about Dickens so wouldn’t be recommending on that – or any other – score!

  4. Oh dear, I don’t think this novel and I would get along very well. The lack of thorough research and authenticity would get on my nerves. I notice this kind of thing happening a lot when people are writing about disability, and it sounds like something of the kind has happened here. It would also really irritate me from the point of view of a Dickens enthusiast. That’s funny Great Expectations isn’t your favorite Dickens novel, as it is one of my least favorites also, although I prefer it to Oliver Twist.

    • I always find that when an author is trying too hard to have a “worthy” message they often get the tone wrong and it comes over as patronising or exploitative or, in this case, colonial. And it had nothing insightful to say about Dickens in my not-so-humble opinion! Ha! Coincidentally, Oliver Twist is my least favourite too! I’m pretty sure we must be long-lost bookish twins… 😉 Which is your favourite? Mine is Bleak House. Or maybe Nicholas Nickleby. Or A Tale of Two Cities…

    • Haha – I was feeling somewhat pithy when I wrote it! I don’t mind colonial attitudes in books written during colonial times, or even about colonial times, but not in contemporary fiction!!

  5. Yes, we definitely must be bookish twins re our mutual love of Dickens and Agatha Christie. I have about 7 favorite Dickens novels which I can never choose between, but I think my over all favorites are Bleak House, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby. I’m also rather fond of Dombey and Son, possibly his most underrated novel.

    • I like Dombey & Son too, though it’s years since I read it – must be due a re-read soon. I liked Little Dorrit but not quite as much as the others, and I love about 90% of David Copperfield – the Dora stuff is too saccharine to be bearable, even for Dickens!

  6. I absolutely LOVE it when you find a book you can’t recommend, FF!! Your review of this one makes it sound rather dreary, so my TBR is (mercifully!) safe today. Look on the bright side, at least it served as one of your Books of Summer!

  7. Totally agree with all aspects of your review of this book – I read & thoroughly disliked it some years ago having seen it ‘highly’ recommended somewhere & I’m glad that readers here have a nuanced review of this book.

    • I was surprised at how many people were rating it so highly Goodreads – sometimes I think it’s just me, so I’m glad to know you had a similar reaction. I really found a lot of it quite objectionable, and not even particularly well done…

  8. I read Great Expectations back at school (the sections in Kent are set very near my hometown, so there was much excitement among the teachers about it being “local”), and it didn’t leave me with the best impression, but even if it had, I don’t think I would be picking this up! Great review though, which I really enjoyed reading.

    • Thank you! 😀 I was forced to analyse Great Expectations to death at Uni and it destroyed any pleasure I might have found in it. Sometimes I think Dickens shouldn’t be taught – he should just be left for readers to discover for themselves at an age that suits them!

  9. This book was once recommended to me by a co-worker who, in general, had completely opposite book taste to me (and who I didn’t really enjoy working with for other reasons) so I’ve never been the least bit tempted to read it. Thanks for your review which validates my petty book decisions!

      • I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh, sure I’ll add to my list” reply…without telling the person that my TBR has hundreds of books on it and I will not actually add their recommendation or ever read it. But that’s harder to get away with with someone you see all the time!

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