As you may have noticed, writing reviews of Pat Conroy’s books tends to tie me in knots. This phenomenon surprises me – but whatever. It happens. So right now I am going to take a break from my ongoing struggle to review The Water is Wide and tell you about Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, which does not have anything to do with Pat Conroy, even though it takes place on an island, just like The Water is Wide, and is about the power of education.
The characters in Mister Pip are pawns of historical forces like no characters I have ever encountered. Fourteen year-old Matilda was born on the island of Bougainville and has never left the island, although her father has left to work in a mine on another island and – for all of Matilda’s understanding of world geography – might as well be in outer space. Bougainville is the part of the territory disputed in a war, which I now know (as a result of some online research) is the civil war that led to Bougainville’s independence in 1990. In the book, these political details are as vague to the reader as they are to Matilda, who knows only that “the redskins and the rambos” are fighting a war and that the appearance of either side on the island generally presages bad news.
Matilda remembers a time before the war when the island had a fully functioning school, but since the war the schoolhouse has essentially been abandoned until the only white man on the island – Mr. Watts – decides to open it. The parents send their children to school with shopping lists; their only understanding of the nature of white people is that they have some kind of preternatural access to supplies. Mr. Watts can’t help the residents of Bougainville get gas for their generators and malaria pills for their children – he is living in the same state of deprivation they are – but he captivates their children by reading them a chapter a day from Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Early in this experience, Matilda makes the mistake of mentioning to her mother that she feels closer to Pip (the protagonist in Great Expectations) than she does to any of the members of her own family. From that moment on, Matilda’s mother, Dolores, establishes herself as an enemy of Mr. Watts and of Great Expectations, seeing it as a threat to Matilda’s loyalty to her family. Dolores stops short of withdrawing Matilda from school or actively showing disrespect to Mr. Watts, who in her eyes is worthy of respect because she is white; instead what she does is visit the school regularly to give the students lessons in religion. Mr. Watts allows and even welcomes these visits, and the parents of other children visit as well to pass their own specialized knowledge on to the students.
Soon a certain rivalry develops (in Matilda’s mind and in that of her mother, if nowhere else) between two sets of “fictional characters”: Dolores’ conceptions of God and the devil – who are as real to her as the other islanders – and Pip and the other characters in Great Expectations, who have taken on the status of “real people” in the eyes of Matilda and the other children. Mr. Watts’ atheism is clear to Matilda even though he never argues directly with Dolores, and Matilda begins to view Dickens’ fictional characters as stand-ins for God and the devil in Mr. Watts’ world.
Eventually the war comes to Bougainville. The soldiers (the “redskins” this time; the “rambos” will come later) take a head count of everyone on the island, but they become angry because they have heard references to someone named “Pip” and assume that the people must be hiding him. Somehow, the name “Pip” has become synonymous with rebellion and free-thinking and self-determination – all things that soldiers who want to control Bougainville for themselves want to suppress. Some of the islanders tell the soldiers that Pip is just a fictional character in a book, but when someone goes to the school to get the book and prove to the soldiers that Pip is just a character, the book is missing. As punishment for lying and, presumably, for hiding the real Pip, the soldiers empty out every hut in the village and burn everything the people own except the clothes they are wearing and the actual structures that they live in.
The next time soldiers come (this time it’s the rambos), Mr. Watts is ready for them and identifies himself as Pip. You can probably see what Jones is going for: Pip has gone from a fictional character in a novel impossibly remote from a south Pacific island in the 1990’s to an abstract concept that rivals God and the devil to a real person made flesh. I’ll leave off telling you the details at this point, but this novel, while sometimes whimsical, is no fantasy: what happens is exactly what always happens when powerless people develop ideas of their own and come to the attention of men with guns.
I spent the first half of the novel wondering why exactly Jones had chosen Great Expectations as the novel Mr. Watts introduced to the children on the island. At first it seems to be an arbitrary choice and he could have chosen any long novel with a convoluted plot and an engaging protagonist. Then it becomes clear that Jones’ novel is very much about the idea of orphans. Matilda ends up orphaned (or almost orphaned – she does reunite with the father who left the family to work in a copper mine), and in the sense that all of the people of Bougainville have been abandoned by the colonial powers that once took a paternalistic interest in their well-being, everyone on the island is an orphan of sorts. Great Expectations also reaches out across the globe to Matilda’s part of the world, since late in the novel we learn that Magwitch spent time in Australia. Like in Matilda’s world, characters in that novel are impacted by the tiniest actions and choices of other characters that they have never met or heard of.
Dickens is an author that I love and that also often frustrates me. Almost everyone who criticizes Dickens attacks the implausibility with which his plots tie themselves up in neat little knots, with characters who thought they were orphans in Chapter 1 discovering endless connections between themselves and the other characters. And, of course, on a literal level, this kind of plotting is implausible. But it seems to me that on a less literal level Dickens always expresses a great faith in the interconnectedness of human beings – a profoundly optimistic message (in spite of the often grisly events in the lives of his characters) that I think some readers rightly consider overly naïve and ingenuous even when taken only figuratively. In reality, as we all know, armies throughout history have mowed down entire islands and villages and tribes and continents of native people without any apparent ripples to affect humanity as a whole. In Dickens, though, even the most apparently insignificant characters are always connected by blood, by life experience, or by a series of meaningful coincidences to everyone else.
The adult Matilda becomes a Dickens scholar, visiting major cities in Australia and England to study Dickens and to research the story of her own life: she wants to learn more about who Mr. Watts was, how he ended up as the only white man on Bougainville during the civil war, why Great Expectations was so important to him, and why he was willing to sacrifice himself for the people of the island. It is in her search to discover the way her own life has intersected with those of others that Great Expectations starts to become highly relevant to the fabric of this novel.
Mister Pip is simple and complex in all the right ways. Its prose is simple and elegant, and it has a parable-like quality that never lets a reader forget that she is reading something that matters – a feeling that I often have when I read Dickens, even at the moment when I wish his novels would pick up their pace somehow. Dickens’ novels have a way of making us trust them – of giving us a sense of faith that the “god” of his world knows what he is doing. Mister Pip is in many ways bleaker than a Dickens novel; it suggests and alludes to this kind of faith even as it undermines it. I recommend this novel highly – and please don’t feel that you need to read Great Expectations first in order to appreciate it. It is a parable about loss and hope and power and about the ways that education both elevates people and complicates their lives in ways that are painful.