Friday, March 20, 2015

Mister PipMister Pip by Lloyd Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lloyd Jones' novel "Mister Pip" comes extremely highly recommended by one of my favorite literary websites, Complete Review . Based on their A+ recommendation, I read three extraordinary books, Chris Wilson's "Mischief" , Amelie Nothomb's "Loving Sabotage" , and Cynthia Ozick's "The Puttermesser Papers" , each of which I rated with five stars. Well, Mr. Jones' novel breaks the pattern of my complete agreement with Complete Review. Despite their A+ rating, for me this is just a four stars novel, maybe even not that. In fact, I finished reading the novel about two weeks ago and since then I have not been able to decide what to think about it.

The story, narrated by Matilda, a thirteen year-old girl, takes place on Bougainville, an island in Papua New Guinea, "one of the most fertile places on earth", during the civil war of the early 1990s, a war that was largely ignored by the so-called "white world". We witness the horrors of war through the eyes of a child, and the slaughter of household animals, which allows the children to imagine "what a human being split open would look like", is a preview of further attractions to come. Mr. Watts, called Pop Eye by the children, the only white person on the island becomes an ad-hoc teacher after all actual teachers leave the island because of the war. Mr. Watts teaches the children by reading to them Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations". All the kids, and Matilda perhaps the most, are totally enchanted and captivated by the plot. "It contained a world that was whole and made sense, unlike ours", says she. Identifying herself with Dickens' Mr. Pip and living through his adventures becomes the most important thing for Matilda, temporarily even displacing her mother as the main authority and the guiding force in her life. Alas, the virtual existence of Mr. Pip does not end well for the children. The idyll ends when soldiers, human beings wielding machetes, teach other human beings a lesson by eviscerating them.

Mr. Wilkinson, a trained critic from "Financial Times" writes that the novel is a "brilliantly nuanced examination of the power of imagination, literature and reinvention as the themes of Dickens’s Great Expectations are woven into the story of Matilda’s loss of innocence." Well said, but to me, a largely illiterate applied mathematician, it is a book about the contrast between the carefree beauty and happiness of childhood, and real life where soldiers can come and slaughter people, cut them into little pieces and feed the shreds to pigs, while you are watching. By the way, while funerals are usually distressing events, I have never read a more disturbing funeral story than in Mr. Jones' novel.

I am probably wrong, but to me there is a flaw in the book's structure. The last three chapters, where the author sort of interprets the childhood events from a perspective of an adult, partially negate the raw beauty of the book full of magnificent passages such as, for instance, the list of "Things that tell you where home is." I still cannot decide whether it really is a four-star novel. Still, I strongly recommend it since it offers some great writing, unforgettable images, and sober insights into what humans can do to other humans.

Four stars.

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