Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip certainly has an appealing cover. If authors won the Booker on the strength of their cover's alone, it would probably take the prize. The bookies have it as the favourite too, just ahead of On Chesil Beach, and I can hardly blame them - Mister Pip looks like it should be a winner. It it political, but not too political; literary, but not too literary; tragic, but not too tragic; and intertextual but not inaccessible. More importantly in the circumstances, it is saleable. Highly saleable. It has a much wider potential audience than, say, Darkmans or The Gathering (my current favourites to win). But, in my opinion, it is missing an essential something: the courage of its difficult convictions.
Matilda is a girl on the ascent out of adolescence, and Mister Pip captures her half-way between the naivety of her childhood and the crushing responsibility of her adulthood. Intelligent, curious and creative, she lives alone with her unsmiling mother, Dolores, in a small village on the South Pacific island of Bougainville. Her young life there has been relatively simple and calm. Admittedly marred by the continuing absence of her father - a migrant worker in Australia - it has still run in the smooth grooves of tradition. More recently, however, a guerilla war between government authorities from Port Moresby ('the red skins') and native rebels ('black as the night') has led to a breakdown of the ordinaryness of life. A blockade has been placed on the island, forcing all the 'white folk' to leave - the schoolmaster, the priest - and leaving the villagers without fuel or imported food. They manage, of course, by doing what they have always done: fishing, foraging and keeping quiet. But still, there is a distinct change in the atmosphere of the settlement. For Matilda this manifests itself most markedly with the closure of the school, and the attendant loss of purpose:
My sense of time was governed by the school year - when term began, when it ended, the holidays in between. Now that we had been set free we had all this time on our hands. When we woke we no longer felt the brooms on our backsides or our mums shouting at us to Ged up! Ged up you lazy bones! ... The weeks passed. Now we had an idea of what our time was for. It was to be spent waiting. We waited, and we waited for the redskin soldiers, or the rebels, whoever got here first.
Finally the tedium is relieved by the advent of a new teacher, the village's sole remaining whiteman and resident eccentric, Mr. Watts. Married to a mysterious local woman, Mr Watts is known locally as Pop Eye on account of his bulging features and his habit of wearing a red clown's nose. Nevertheless, with a quite startling integrity, he takes it upon himself to act as mentor to the local children, reopening the schoolroom and endeavouring to teach them what he knows. And what he knows best is a book: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 'the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century'. Between December 1991 and February 1992 he reads the book to his pupils, cover to cover, and they lap up every word. He reads it again, and then again, until its events and characters begin to inhabit and invade the islanders.
Told in retrospect by Matilda (who, in an entirely disappointing turn for the obvious, ends up a Dickens' scholar), Mister Pip goes on to trace the marvellous and devastating effects the book has on the minds and lives of the inhabitants of Bougainville. It is very difficult to describe without giving away plot essentials, but safe to say it is suitably dramatic, galvinising individuals to acts of both betrayal and self-sacrifice. For Matilda, it is the catalyst that ignites her vivid imagination: 'Mr Watts had given us kids another piece of the world. I found I could go back to it as often as I liked. What's more, I could pick up any moment in the story.' More importantly, it arms her with the mechanisms for coping with the inevitable tragedy of the years to come. Undoubtedly, Jones' novel has something to say about the transformative power of good prose.
But Mister Pip isn't really about Dickens (this is something Matilda herself comes to realise), or about healing through literature, or about the vitalness of the imagination. It is about the humanity of Mr. Watts, and what motivates him to behave in the ways that he does; it is about the ways in which he uses Great Expectations to rise above himself. There is an extent to which he is a religious leader, using Dickens' to instill his ideals and aesthetics into his young audience; certainly, by the end of the novel he has become a sacrificial figure, leaving an aura of the sacred around his chosen text. Not that you need to have read Dickens' novel to understand or appreciate Jones' (I haven't): Great Expectation is just a cypher for something more essential. (Which is what all literature is, I suppose.) Matilda learns this lesson towards the end of Mister Pip when, as an adult, she re-reads it only to discover that Mr Watts simplified and altered the text as he read to the children, omitting plot points and changing words so that they might know it better. After she has overcome her sense of betrayal she realises that it was the experience itself, rather than the purity of it, that mattered. Eventually, she goes so far as to refigure Mr Watts as Charles Dickens, as the storyteller:
It has occured to me only recently that I never saw him with a machete - his survival weapon was story. And once, long ago and during very difficult circumstances, my Mr Dickens had taught everyone of us kids that our voice was special, and we should remember this whenever we used it, and remember that whatever else happened to us in our lives our voice would never be taken away from us.... Pip was my story, even if I was once a girl, and my face black as the shining night.
Given all the promise, however, Mister Pip ultimately fails itself. How? It is too easy, that is how. Lloyd Jones' writing is sometimes lovely, really lovely - rich and sympathetic, a pleasure to read, with just the right tickle-mix of innocence and otherness:
In the tropics night falls quickly. There is no lingering memory of the day just been. One moment you can see the dogs looking skinny and mangy. In the next they have turned into black shadows. If you are not ready with candles and kerosene the quick fall of night is like being put away in a dark cell, from where there is no release until the following dawn.
But the arch of his ending is obvious and frankly disappointing. The last 50 pages of the novel begin dark and bleak, and peak with some extroadinary acts of violence - Matilda's voice perfectly captures the physical and psychological disturbance of the climax. Then, inexplicably, when everything is going so well there is a sea change and we are given 30 pages of her adult life, in which thematic revelation is spelt out word for word, until you feel laden down under the sheer earnestness of Mister Pip's message. It is like being in a darkened theatre, completely immersed in the world of the characters on stage, and then having the lights come up at the end and the actors step forward to tell the audience what their story has meant. One moment we are in the dense, atmospheric jungle of Bougainville, the next we are in the Dickens museum in contemorary England and the transition is too traumatic to work for me. It doesn't leave anything to the reader's imagination; it doesn't leave the requisite gap between fiction and meaning and so smothers itself.
This may be one of the reasons, aside from Matilda's age, that some critics have likened Mister Pip to a Young Adult novel. It has that forced sincere feeling to it, the point of it all spelt out loud and clear. Personally I would have prefered to be left in darkness. If you have read it, and have your copy to hand, turn to page 190 and read the last line there. Wouldn't that have been the most perfect place for Jones' to end the novel? Honestly, those last 30 pages go a long way to spoiling it for me.