July 10, 2007

Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip

Posted in Jones Lloyd at 5:11 pm by John Self

Lloyd Jones is a New Zealand writer with a handful of novels under his belt, but Mister Pip is the first to be published in the UK.  Straight out of the trap it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and I wouldn’t rule out further garlands for it in the months to come.  Expect his back catalogue to slope into view very soon.

The cover, which looks garish here but in the hand is bold and bright and makes it a lovely object to hold, gives a fair idea of the colourful tropicality of Mister Pip.  It’s set in a remote island in the South Pacific.  Looking everywhere, there is the sea, “that huge baffling blue ocean sky that separated us from the world.”  But as well as a divider, the view is a reminder that “the sea offers the only way out of this life.  There it is, day after lazy day, showing us the way.”

One who has taken this way out is the father of our narrator Matilda, who has gone to Australia to find work.  She is left with her mother Dolores in their village, which is beautifully evoked by Jones in almost a fairy-tale manner:

Bougainville is one of the most fertile places on earth.  Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves.  Another three months and you are picking its fruit.  But for a machete, we would have no land of our own.  Left alone the bush would march down the steep hillsides and bury our villages in flower and vine.

And for much of the time the story retains this innocence, so much so that at times it reads like a young adult novel.  But there is steel beneath the softness, which flashes out devastatingly toward the end of the book.

Along with Matilda and her mother, the other main character is Mr Watts, the only white man on the island, also known as Pop Eye because of his eyes which “stuck out further than anyone else’s – like they wanted to leave the surface of his face.  They made you think of someone who couldn’t get out of the house quickly enough.”

When disaster strikes Bougainville in the shape of a war, turning many of the men into rebel “rambos” opposing the invading “redskins.”  Mr Watts stands clear as a civilising influence amid the encroaching barbarity, running the village school and reading to Matilda and her fellow pupils from Great Expectations, “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century.”  The children’s acquaintance with ‘Mister Dickens’ leads to a rich stew of food for thought, about the power of memory and remembrance to shape our lives and define those around us.

Mister Pip is a charming but unsentimental story which reminded me at times of Ben Rice’s Pobby and Dingan.  It may not, to quote the cover line, change your life forever, but it should certainly sweeten it for a time.

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12 Comments »

  1. It’s a sign! I’ve seen it yet again, one of my good Oxfam finds in London last week and you convince me to read it, word of blog such a good and great thing.

  2. John Self said,

    Cornflower also rated it highly on her blog. I owe my reading of it to Palimpsest. I am sure if you like it, dgr, you will spur many more into action!

  3. Katinka said,

    Delighted to see Mister P has made the shortlist. I got my copy because I volunteered to review it for Waterstones. Did’t think I’d get a copy, so when it arrived, my heart sank at the thought of having to read it. The feeling was soon dispelled, as I became engrossed. My motivation for requesting review copies stems from a recent disastrous cut in my budget. I run a scheme called Foster A Book, whose aim is to encourage Cornwall’s Looked After Children to enjoy reading and access literature. Some of our young people are unable to read, so audio books are a great blessing. Having lost £5.5K from my meagre £30K annual funding, I am constantly on the look out for freebies! Back to the book itself, I do not think it is a children’s book but your thoughts on the age range for readership would be most welcome.

  4. John Self said,

    I certainly think it could be read by young adults, Katinka, by which I suppose I mean teenagers and older. I do get some freebies myself these days but I paid for my copy of Mister Pip!

  5. Katinka said,

    D’accord, I think it would be a useful addition to A level syllabus in fact. I am going to hold onto my review copy though!

  6. Tony S. said,

    If I were choosing between “Mister Pip” and “Chesil Beach” for the Man Booker Prize, I probably would choose “Mister Pip”. . Its plot is more original, a more colorful, vivid story. I think it would make a very good introduction into literature for teenagers.

  7. John Self said,

    I agree Tony, though my first choice for the prize is Animal’s People. Only two hours or so until we find out…

  8. Carol said,

    I am so glad that a friend recommended this book, one that I could not put down. I am only disappointed that here in the US his other books do not seem to have been published. Will seek them out for sure.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for dropping by Carol. It’s the same in the UK – Jones seems to have sprung from nowhere when in fact Mister Pip was his sixth (I think?) novel. A couple of the earlier ones are being published in the UK later this year. I’m sure they’ll make it over to you too!

  10. Stewart said,

    The first earlier Lloyd Jones is out next week in the UK. It’s called Here At The End Of The World We Learn To Dance.

  11. John Self said,

    Ah, thank you very much Stewart. Will have to look out for that one.

  12. Riona said,

    I am currently reading this book for my up coming exams. It takes a little while to get into, however it is a good and thought provoking book. It is not very long only 219 pages. However the novel goes hot and cold in places which can mean it is a little boring at times to read, there are events in there which are incredibly well written.


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