The blue-grey jacket of the book almost obscured itself into anonymity amidst a sea of loud lettering and bold covers. However, it was perhaps this soothing subtlety that also made it stand out and brought it to my notice in the heap of books piled on rickety wooden tables at the book sale near Plaza Singapura at Dhoby Ghaut. One look at the blurb, and I wanted this book badly- keeping my budget in mind, I had made up my mind on the number of books I was going to pick up, and once I’d found it, there were no second thoughts. Doris Lessing was abandoned in favour of Lloyd Jones.
Mister Pip is bewitching from the word go. You know how certain books bond with you instantly, talk to you and let you slip into the bodies and minds of their characters effortlessly? Mister Pip is one of them. Set mainly on Bougainville Island, it follows the life of young Matilda and other children trapped in the horrors of revolt, finding succour in the most unimaginable way as all other doors seem closed to them. After their school is closed down, the only white man on the island, Mr. Watts (or Pop Eye as he is called before they learn to really respect him), who is not even a teacher by profession, decides to take on the responsibility of teaching the children. He is not an expert, searches in vain for quite a few answers, but brings with him a gift that delights and gives the children another world to escape into- that of Dickensian London. He reads to them from Great Expectations, a chapter a day, until Matilda (and the others, as she realises gradually), find themselves drawn into Pip’s life- she grows protective of Pip, travels with him, feels his pain, despises those who use him badly. She writes his name out on the sand and adorns it, her private shrine to Pip.
Matilda’s mother doesn’t quite approve of her passion for an imaginary character, though, more so when she realises that her daughter values him and the book more than her own departed relations or her Bible. The depth of her hatred is revealed when she stands unmoved, harbouring a secret while the islanders lose all their possessions to the ‘redskins’, who, in their quest for the non-existent ‘Mister Pip’, suspecting him of being a rebel, burn up everything the people own. Trouble is further fomented on the island with the arrival of the rebels, the Rambos, and things spiral downwards rapidly. What, however, remains with Matilda throughout the turmoil, is the story of Pip and the hope it gives her to hold on to. She likens people and circumstances to characters and situations from the book, almost lives in a different world of her own, of grey streets and cold rain and orphans with sudden strokes of good luck. Matilda moves on, goes to Australia to live with her father and finish her schooling, and finds herself in London doing a thesis on Dickens’ life.
More than the thread of the story itself, what is appealing and evocative is the description of the characters themselves. You become Matilda, you transform into Mr. Watts. The questions she asks of Mr. Watts seem pertinent and very real. Imagination, that most precious gift given to all of us, is the thing to turn to when no other avenues seem available. The voice in which you say your own name is something which can never be taken away from you. Even when your house amounting to “something about containment that at the same time offers escape” is cruelly burnt down, you have that niche in your head, that secret room, which welcomes you and takes you wherever you want to go- the power of imagination, that parallel universe that the more practical scoff at. It doesn’t feed Mr. Watts, as Matilda’s mother says, but it gives rise to hope and courage, perhaps just as important as material sustenance.
(I only wish I’d finished Great Expectations before reading Mister Pip. I’d probably have enjoyed it better, because now I know all about the mysterious benefactor and Pip’s fortunes. Oh, if only I’d been patient enough to finish it- luckily, I’d read enough to know Mr. Jaggers, Magwitch, Estella and Miss Havisham.)
I have seen reviews that don’t really recommend this book and indict it for a plot that tapers out after promising much. Get into the characters’ minds, though, and you’ll probably see what I mean. It is magic. I hope Mr. Watts wasn’t getting into the act, playing a teacher. And I also hope Lloyd Jones isn’t pretending, that he means every single word about the enthralling power of books. Because it is all true, every bit of it.