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Mister Pipby Lloyd Jones
One of the best books I read in 2008, Mister Pip is the kind of lyrical and poignant novel one wishes to find every few weeks. An added bonus: it also inspires a desire to reread Dickens's Great Expectations.
Synopses & Reviews
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.
So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, "A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe." Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.
"A promising though ultimately overwrought portrayal of the small rebellions and crises of disillusionment that constitute a young narrator's coming-of-age unfolds against an ominous backdrop of war in Jones's latest. When the conflict between the natives and the invading 'redskin' soldiers erupts on an unnamed tropical island in the early 1990s, 13-year-old Matilda Laimo and her mother, Dolores, are unified with the rest of their village in their efforts for survival. Amid the chaos, Mr. Watts, the only white local (he is married to a native), offers to fill in as the children's schoolteacher and teaches from Dickens's Great Expectations. The precocious Matilda, who forms a strong attachment to the novel's hero, Pip, uses the teachings as escapism, which rankles Dolores, who considers her daughter's fixation blasphemous. With a mixture of thrill and unease, Matilda discovers independent thought, and Jones captures the intricate, emotionally loaded evolution of the mother-daughter relationship. Jones (The Book of Fame; Biografi) presents a carefully laid groundwork in the tense interactions between Matilda, Dolores and Mr. Watts, but the extreme violence toward the end of the novel doesn't quite work. Jones's prose is faultless, however, and the story is innovative enough to overcome the misplayed tragedy. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"On an island called Bougainville in the early 1990s, civil war rages. Rebels have taken up arms, and soldiers helicopter in from nearby Port Moresby to reestablish New Guinea's sovereignty over the island. All the whites have fled except one: Mr. Watts, a New Zealander married to a local woman. He offers to replace the departed teacher and reopen the village school; on the second day of class, he... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) begins to read 'Great Expectations' aloud. Suddenly, the village's children have a refuge from the incomprehensible conflict engulfing their world. 'We could escape to another place,' declares Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator. 'It didn't matter that it was Victorian England. We found we could easily get there.' New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones' spare, haunting fable explores the power and limitations of art as Matilda chronicles 21 increasingly desperate months. The villagers are trapped between the rebels and the soldiers just as inexorably as Matilda is caught between Mr. Watts and her fiercely religious mother. Outraged by her daughter's immersion in 'Great Expectations,' a novel that she finds both immoral and dangerously irrelevant to their imperiled existence, Matilda's mother insists, 'Stories have a job to do. ... They have to teach you something.' The mother believes she's battling Mr. Watts for Matilda's soul. She already distrusts him because of his wife, Grace. Once a scholarship girl, Grace was supposed to 'show the white world how smart a black kid could be,' not give up her studies to get married. In the mother's mind, Mr. Watts is just like the white men who tempted away Matilda's father to a well-paid job (and plenty of alcohol) in Australia. They lure black folks from the path of righteousness and independence; 'Great Expectations' is just as lethal as a bottle of booze. So she hides the islanders' only copy of the book, an act that has mortal consequences. Finding the name 'Pip' written in the sand, the soldiers assume he's a rebel leader; when Mr. Watts can't produce proof that 'Pip' is just a character in a novel, they burn all the villagers' possessions. There's much worse to come in a bloody denouement that leaves Matilda bereft of the two people whose clashing values she tried so hard to reconcile. Jones' tale would be bleak indeed were it not for the fact that in their ultimate moments Mr. Watts and her mother surmount their differences to affirm a shared moral code. Matilda grows up and goes to graduate school, still in love with Dickens and 'Great Expectations.' But she also comes to understand that literature doesn't just offer escape, it can take you home. She puts aside her thesis on 'Dickens' Orphans' and begins to write this story of the man who 'had taught every one of us kids that our voice was special. ... Whatever else happened in our lives our voice could never be taken away from us.' Wendy Smith is the author of 'Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.'" Reviewed by Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A]n assured tribute to the remarkable ability of literature to see us through adversities and tribulations. The Man Booker committee would be on the mark were it to give its prestigious award to Mister Pip." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Not just a delightful read, Mister Pip shows the cut and thrust of true multiculturalism." Atlantic Monthly
"The accessible narrative, with its direct and graceful prose, belies the sophistication of its telling as Jones addresses head-on the effects of imperialism and the redemptive power of art." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Mister Pip is sheer magic, a story about stories and their power to transcend the limits of imagination and reside in the deep heart's core. Lloyd Jones is a brave and fierce writer, and he has given us Dickens brand new again." Keith Donohue, author of The Stolen Child
"[I]f Mister Pip is preachy — and it is — it's also a book with worthwhile thoughts to impart. Mr. Jones's ability to translate these thoughts into the gentle, tropical, roundabout idiom of his setting...turns out to be genuinely affecting." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"A little Gauguin, a bit of Lord Jim, the novel's lyricism evokes great beauty and great pain." Kirkus Reviews
In a transcendent novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fable-like, the author of Biograf celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform lives.
About the Author
Lloyd Jones was born in New Zealand in 1955. His previous novels and collections of stories include the award-winning The Book of Fame; Biografi, a New York Times Notable Book; Choo Woo; Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance; and Paint Your Wife. Lloyd Jones lives in Wellington.
Jones's Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance will be available in the U.S. for the first time on August 26, 2008.
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