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.