Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mister Pip

Falstaff reviews Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip here.

My review of the same book:

The blurb was all about the transformative power of books, and how a lone white man in a remote South Pacific island changes peoples' lives by reading Great Expectations to them during a blockade. Doesn't exactly sound promising, does it? That's what I figured too, and I gave up for a while after reading the first chapter. The book begins with the narrator talking about a white man nicknamed Pop Eye who used to drag his huge native wife through the village on a trolley in the afternoons. This Pop Eye guy even has a red clown nose. The writing was simple and engaging but really, I wasn't going to read another of these things. When it appeared on the shortlist a few days later, I felt vindicated - yes, look, they even put it on that shortlist, it can't be that good. Yesterday, I decided to give it one more try - after all, its about Great Expectations[1], how bad can it be?

Well, not bad at all. Its the best of the ones on the shortlist that I have read but that doesn't mean much as the other two are the McEwan and the Hamid. But that's really all that I can say about it! The story is set in the early 1990s, and it is narrated by Matilda, originally of Bougainville, now an immigrant Australian. Matilda is thirteen when the blockade begins. The world has forgotten their fertile little island, the boys have all gone to join the rebels ("rambos"), the "redskins" fly above in their choppers, the teachers have taken the last boat out. Mr Watts aka Pop Eye, the only white man in the village agrees to teach the children. He introduces them to Mr Dickens through Great Expectations. Matilda, like most other children immediately takes to the rimy mornings and the marshes of Victorian England, and falls in love with Pip and Joe Gaggery. To her mother's chagrin, Pip becomes more dear to her than the relatives in the family tree, or the God that her mother worships with a dangerous intensity. The situation worsens as is expected, and its only a matter of time before the redskins get to the village. Any world would be nice to escape to in such a situation, and (I guess) Dickensian England qualifies.

Jones's writing is simple but clever, folksy in a way, and his descriptions of the island and the people are charming. The problem though is that it doesn't go much beyond "charming". The characters are stereotypes, (though they speak in a really endearing manner) and its left to the reader to figure out why Pip should prove to be important to Matilda or anyone else for that matter. Its almost as if any other book or character would have done quite as well - why Pip? why Dickens? (As Falstaff points out somewhere in his review, one gets the feeling that Enid Blyton and the Famous Five would have done quite as well)

But wait, we aren't done with the story yet. Jones is not content with letting Pip live in his fictitious world, and this (sort of) saves the book. The redskins arrive, and seeing the beach-side shrine that Matilda built for Pip, they are convinced that Pip is a rebel and demand that he be handed over. With that, Pip is solidly in the island, he is one of them. Atrocities happen as expected and I don't want to give away the rest of the plot but will just say that it involves a story within a story narrative where Mr Watts spins his life, the stories of the islanders, and the story of Pip, basically everything that we have read so far into a neat yarn spread over seven nights. Interested? Go read.

Again, Jones is a clever writer, and I especially liked the way he describes the atrocities of war. So simple, understated, matter-of-fact and yet it conveys so much. The problem is that you don't really feel for the characters - I am reading about these brutalities thinking how clever the writing is, and not really about what the thirteen year old protagonist is going through and that doesn't seem quite right. Also, Jones unfortunately doesn't end the story in the island - he goes on for another fifty or so pages about Matilda's Dad, and Australia, and England and Dickens which is all very inane and serves no purpose whatsoever.

So did I like it? Yeah, it was nice. Pleasant reading. The writing is cool, some parts of the narrative are engrossing, and its good to see the author going beyond just the escapism theme. Worth a read, I would say. But it doesn't stay in the mind - because the characters are two-dimensional, the plot is contrived (which would have been okay if the characters were sketeched out well), and Jones tries a little too hard - he so much wants not to be the outsider, and he so wants us to like the characters that the effort is what shows up throughout. Not much in terms of results.

[1] Is there anyone in the world whose favorite Dickens is not Great Expectations? Really?


Falstaff said...

15. She's 15 by the time the really bad stuff happens to her. See my response to your comment on my post.

Oh, and it's Jones, not James.

Just to be clear - I wasn't saying that Famous Five would have done as well as Great Expectations. I was saying that reading Jones is like reading Blyton. There's more genuine character development and more emotional appeal in your average St. Clare book than in Mister Pip.

Also, for the record, I thought that seven day yarn spinning bit was pathetically trite. What was with all those random lists (which were boring enough on paper - I don't see how you could possibly have maintained your audience's interest by narrating them)? And all that creepy listening at the wall bits? We don't actually get a story - all we get is a writer trying to be clever.

Finally, "Is there anyone in the world whose favorite Dickens is not Great Expectations?" Yes. Me. I'd pick David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities and Pickwick Papers over it.

Veena said...

Ok, will change that. I read James the entire time and even thought that that it was such a strange name. Then I figured that maybe these NZers are vague. Anyway.

Ya ok. Yes, I read the review again later once I actually got out of bed. I knew you were going to point the Blyton thing out but was too lazy to change it. Me also thinks that there was more charater dev in the St Clare's series but to be fair, I haven't read them in recent times.

I liked the seven day spinning - it was creepy and all but it held my attention alright. But yeah, completely agree on writer trying to be clever part - it was all over the book.

Great. You are different. And strange. And psycho. Wait, we already knew that! Seriously, I switch between Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities every other minute but most people easily pick Pip over Sidney Carton. And the others.

Falstaff said...

What's so strange about James? It's only the name of one of the greatest novelists of all time.

And it isn't about Pip vs. Sidney Carton. It's about Miss Havisham vs. Madame Defarge. Or Miss H. and Estella vs. Fagan and the Artful Dodger.

Also, I have to say I've never much cared for Pip. He's so spineless.

Veena said...

Ya ok, I asked for that, didn't I? But must say that Pip's spinelessness is what makes him all the more endearing, more human really.

Btw, did anyone ever tell you that they once made a superhit Tam movie with Rajinikanth as hero and this woman villain who was loosely based on Miss Havisham? Like she stayed inside this room with wedding dress and all for 25 years or something.

Cheshire Cat said...

"Pickwick Papers". It even has a description of a cricket match.

Veena said...

Cat: Okay, we will put you along with Falstaff. But before that, weren't you supposed to do one of these Mela books? What happened?

Cheshire Cat said...

There's like a month to go, isn't there? I live in a deadline-driven world, whether it is work or reviewing for leisure.

Szerelem said...

ummm David Copperfield.....not that I have read ALL of Dickens' work but ya, Copperfield. Uriah Heep!