“Characters migrate” reads the epithet by Umberto Eco at the beginning of Mr. Pip, the novel by New Zealander Lloyd Jones which pays homage to the way can profoundly enrich and change our lives.
The coming-of age story is narrated by Mathilda, whom we first meet as a thirteen-year old, living on the South Pacific island of Bougainville. It is the early 1990’s and the islanders find themselves caught-up in a bloody civil war between the forces of the government of Papua New Guinea and rebels, which include the men and boys of Mathilda’s village
The island’s white occupants have fled, all except for the eccentric and down-at-heel Mr. Watts who volunteers to keep the school open. Dubbed Pop-Eye by the children, Watts has long been considered a figure-of fun by the children who regularly witness the spectacle of him wearing a clown’s red nose, and pulling behind him a cart on which stands his utterly mad, yet regal wife, Grace.
On the second day of school, Jones begins to read to the children from Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations. And although the book was written a hundred and fifty years before and by someone living a world away, and some of the words give them difficulty, the children find that Watts has given them “a piece of the world” that they can escape to.
Although Mathilda, in particular, finds a friend in Pip, she finds that her love of the book brings her increasingly into conflict with her proud mother, Dolores, who feels her own authority and moral certainty undermined. Afraid that her daughter is being seduced by the white world to which she has already lost her husband, she steals and hides the book. This act imperils all the villagers when government troops come looking for a certain Mr. Pip whose name they have seen written in the sand. When they do not find him, cruel retribution swiftly follows.
Dickens’ novel, meanwhile, is painstakingly reconstructed by the children from fragments of memory with Watts’ help.
Perhaps the most persuasive attestation to the power of story-telling comes later in the novel when Watts plays a latter-day Scherazade to calms a group of drugged and dangerous rebel soldiers. He offers them the story of his life which he weaves from Dickens novel, his own history, and the magical stories about the meaning of things that the islanders have told him. The scene in which Watts and Grace write their own histories on the wall of the spare-room, so that their baby will have a choice of which cultural elements to make her own, is extremely moving, and reminds us that when our own culture comes into contact with another, each of us has the power to decide what parts of it we will accept as our own and which reject.
Like Dickens’ character Pip, Mathilda is forced by circumstances to reinvent herself. Years later, now an Australian citizen, and post-graduate student of literature specializing in “Dickens’ Orphans”, she makes a journey to New Zealand to uncover the truth about Watts, the man who so deeply influenced her life.
Lloyd Jones doesn’t put a foot wrong in this luminous novel, and it is not surprising that it has won this year’s Commonwealth prize.