Last weekend I read Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, has been promoted by Richard and Judy and generally received a lot of hype… frankly I wasn’t that impressed by it.  The basic premise and idea of the book is really interesting, but it just didn’t deliver for me.  It is set on the South Pacific Island of Bougainville at the beginning of the 1990s in the midst of a civil war.  The narrator, a young girl called Matilda, is struggling to understand the changes happening on her island; the complex relationships between natives and colonists, white and black, faith and atheism, innocence and experience.  The only white man left on the island, Mr. Watts, takes it upon himself to teach the school, and his teaching mainly consists of reading the children Great Expectations and letting them discover Dickens’ world of eighteenth century London.  The book becomes the childrens’ way of escape from the confusing reality around them, but the civil war is always lurking in the background and tragedy ensues when fiction and reality become confused.

So, as I said, a really interesting idea and setting.  What Jones does portray well is the impact a book can have on someone, and the richness of discovering a completely different world from your own: ‘I had come to know this Pip as if he were real and I could feel his breath on my cheek.  I had learned to enter the soul of another’.  There are also times when the instability of their existence on this island in paradise is also poignantly highlighted: ‘ When our parents spoke of the future we were given to understand it was an improvement on what we knew. For the first time we were hearing that the future was uncertain.  And because this had come from someone outside of our lives we were more ready to listen.’

However, a lot of the time I felt that there was just a little too much left for the reader to infer for himself.  I didn’t become absorbed in the book as Jones describes Matilda becoming absorbed in Great Expectations, and as I have been absorbed in many other books.  Maybe part of the problem was that I didn’t know enough about the context of this Civil War, but I felt more information could have been given without it having been intrusive.  I always find that the best books are those where you come away feeling that you really know the characters and the situation they are in, and really caring about them, and that you have also learnt something about human nature, history and about yourself almost without realising it.  I think in this book, because the narrator herself was not fully aware of the context she was living in, the obtuseness and insular, almost blinkered style of narration was perhaps deliberate, but it left me frustrated.  I felt I didn’t really know what was going on in the background, and therefore the characters and their lives weren’t as important to me as they should have been.  I think it should be possible for a really skilled author to get across the innocence and naivety of his narrator without at the same time leaving his reader in the dark.  Yes, as the book progressed, I learnt and understood more as Matilda did, but I just felt it wasn’t as eloquent and poignant as it could have been.

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