Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mister Pip

Walking into a bookstore can be a beautiful and exciting thing. Knowing that within the loving arms of the bookshelves you can find, read, and learn about anything or anyone, real or fiction. As wonderful as this is, it can also be very overwhelming. When you are surrounded by countless books, it becomes hard to chose just one. However, in most Chapters stores, they have a display wall of staff picks, local authors, and bestselling books, and on days when I don't have hours to pursue hundreds of books, or just don't have the patience, I find myself standing in front walls such as these. They display a handful of titles, you can see all the covers, and sometimes there are even brief reviews beside them. It was there, in front of the bestsellers, that I found myself standing this week.

One of the first books I picked up was the 2007 Commonwealth Prize winner, Mister Pip, by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones. After reading the summary, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued to discover that the book Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, was going to be one of the main subjects within this Novel. Having previously read Great Expectations, I thought it would be interesting to look at it from another perspective. Mister Pip is a fascinating story, flawlessly told, of a young girl trying to live in the world of a book, where things make sense and fate is predetermined, and in the world around her, where lives are being destroyed and nothing is certain. It is brilliantly nuanced examination of the power of imagination, literature, and reinvention.

Jones presents himself as a master storyteller, using the tale and voice of a young girl named Matilda to narrate this beautiful story. Set against the stunning beauty of Bougainville in the South Pacific during the civil war in the early 1990s, thirteen-year-old Matilda is at a loss to understand the violence that has torn apart her tropical island. Her village, caught in the cross fire of the conflict between government troops and local armed rebels, has lost its teachers. The only white man to stay behind, the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, takes over the post as teacher and begins to read to the class from his favorite novel, a battered copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. And thus begins a voyage of imagination and translation. Initially flummoxed by the meanings of such alien words as frost and moors, Matilda and her classmates soon become entirely riveted by the story and identify so heavily with the orphan Pip that Victorian England becomes more real to them than their own hometown. Provided with firsthand evidence of the power of imagination, Matilda increasingly sees it as a way to survive and even thrive amid the chaos of civil war.

The theme of word choice present in the story is mirrored in the writing. Matilda and the other children acquire lists of new vocabulary from Mr. Dickens’ work, and they learn the importance of choosing the right word with the right meaning for each occasion. Matilda struggles to pick the right words with which to tell her story, to translate the tale of her life’s greatest lessons into language that all will understand, to make the reader conceive of how it was on the island, how it was to meet Mr. Pip and journey across time and space with him.

There is a fittingly dreamy, lyrical quality to Jones' writing, along with an acute ear for the earthy harmonies of village speech. People are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". While his characters embellish their stories readily, his own approach is more controlled. The simplicity with which he describes the atrocities that take place is devastating. But it is the great faith that Jones has in literature, to effect change no less than to offer solace, that gives this extraordinary book its charge.

Not only is Jones’ story an intriguing map of literary discovery on a remote island, it is a sparkling and eloquent homage to the power of storytelling. With its direct and graceful prose, and every word precisely chosen to present the story in a unique and consistent voice, the sophistication of its telling is staggering, as Jones addresses head-on the effects of imperialism and the redemptive power of art.

"You cannot pretend to read a good book. your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames."

Jones’ breathtaking novel shows what magic a child’s imagination makes possible, even in the face of terrible violence, and what power stories have to fuel the imagination. Books hold so much knowledge and wisdom, giving us the everlasting ability to learn about places, people, and ideas, but they can also provide a safe haven, a friend, and a sense of optimism. I find this idea overwhelming, but in such a marvelous way. And so my tip for this book is to never forget the power of the written word. No matter what book you read there is always something to learn, and take away from it, always a safe place to go, and sense of hope to obtain.

"Mister Pip is conjuring of the highest order. With a wave of the literary wand, we are transported - mystified, breath-taken - into the mind of a child discovering the power of words, imagination and Charles Dickens, for the first time. We do not know how we made this journey, but therein lies the illusion: we are reminded that books can be, as surely as Mister Pip is, magic."

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