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Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip


Mister Pip

Author: Lloyd Jones
Publisher: Dial

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In spite of some familiar signifiers—an exotic locale, an idiosyncratic people, a focus on changing cultural traditions, a graphic tragedy—Mister Pip is still more a fairy tale than the kind of popular "window into a foreign land" book typified by Amy Tan, Khaled Hossein, or Masha Hamilton. While it's set around a real conflict—Bougainville's 20th-century bid for independence from Papua New Guinea, particularly the mid-'90s trade blockade—Lloyd dodges the details. His perspective is as limited as those of his protagonists, natives of a tiny, unnamed Bougainville-area island who have little contact with the outside world, and seem to regard the details of life in nearby Australia as alarming myths. They only understand the larger conflict through the trouble it brings and the directions it leads.

In some ways resembling a slighter, more sentimental version of Hamilton's recent The Camel Bookmobile, Mister Pip is more concerned with literature than politics. As the noose tightens around Bougainville, the whites leave, apart from scrawny Mr. Watts. With many of the island's men gone to work in Australia or to join Bougainville's rebel army, the tribe is greatly reduced, and the duty of teaching the children falls to the one remaining white man—husband of a local woman, but still regarded as a source of vast, alien mysteries, including the question of why he sometimes dons a clown nose and pulls his wife around in a handcart. But when Mr. Watts introduces the native kids to Charles Dickens in the form of Great Expectations, they delightedly follow him off into his bizarre and often inexplicable British world.

Mister Pip contains a suspicious streak of paternalism throughout, particularly as Jones constantly emphasizes his characters' blackness, or when Mr. Watts invites the island's adults to help teach, and they dispense a gabble of crazed superstition and mysticism, which he accepts with a benevolent smile. But the salvation-through-art plot isn't nearly as cutesy and cloyingly Mr. Holland's Opus-esque as it may sound. Jones convincingly draws an airy, charming portrait of how isolated kids might open up to bookish escapism, and how it might sharpen them for more ambitious things. Mister Pip isn't about Dickens, or Bougainville, or race relations, or Pacific island life. It's about how reading can be magical, and how the literary image of a new way of life can lend readers the courage to seek one out.