Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones

My book club’s pick for August is Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones. Here is the blurb from Barnes and Noble:

In a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives.

On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

The story takes place on the island of Bougainville during its 1990 struggle for independence. I did not know anything about Bougainville prior to reading this novel but Jones paints a very surreal picture as far as the island itself. The word that came to mind while reading the novel is “dreamlike” even though there is a violent element running throughout the book, there are distinct moments of feeling as if you are in a dream or a nightmare depending on how you look at it.

The story centers around Mr. Watts and Matilda. Mr. Watts is the only white man on the island. He lives with a black woman named Grace. The two are often seen following one another but no one really knows much about him. After all the teachers leave the island, Mr. Watts decides to re-open the schoolhouse. The inhabitants of the island have mixed feelings about this. They are curious about this man, but they also question his ability to teach.

At their first gathering, Mr. Watts takes out a copy of Great Expectations and begins to read passages to them. His intent is to introduce them to Mr. Dickens and that is just what he does. As the days pass and they get deeper into the book, Matilda, one of his pupils begins to talk about the book with her Mum back at their hut. Her Mum begins to question what is being taught to these kids and questions why specific parts of the book have not been removed.

As if in preparation for this, Mr. Watts begins to invite the parents to come talk to the class and gives them the opportunity to “teach” the kids about a topic that they are familiar with. One mother does cooking, one discusses the life cycle of the Mayfly. All are welcomed and all are made to feel as if they contributed. Even though Matilda’s Mum participates in these guest lectures, she continues to question the motives of this white man.

I can’t say much more without giving some of the story away, but the story begins to examine what is fiction and what is not and how interwoven their lives are with the lives contained between the pages of Great Expectations. Lloyd does a fantastic job of leading you along and lulling you into a sense of calm, only to shake you up and create visuals that you just cannot get out of your mind.

Mister Pip is easy to read, yet has some very deep themes. I recommend some additional reading on the island of Bougainville. You can read a little about the island here.
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