July 5, 2010

Spicing up Dickens

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The next book of the summer was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Montana Medal in 2007. Set on Bougainville Island during the civil war there in the 1990s, the novel is told from the perspective of a young teen girl, Matilda, who has spent her whole life in the same small village. Despite the conflict on the island, the only white man in the village, Mr. Watts, takes over the teaching responsibilities for the children of the island. He has no experience with teaching, so he does the only thing he knows. He reads to the students from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, aloud, from start to finish. He helps them understand Dickens' dense, wordy prose set in a far off land the students know nothing about: Victorian England. But as the civil war between the miners and the mining company brings violence and terror to the small village, Matilda and her fellow islanders must rely on the rich story of Pip's maturation to survive the atrocities.

Race is a major theme throughout the novel, with the black islanders, the brown fighters, the single white teacher... At the end of one chapter is one of the most well written discussions of white and black, as racial experiences, that I've seen in fiction. Because Mr. Watts is the only white person in the village, the racial scale is balanced quite differently than in many situations, but the black islanders still know what power having white skin can bring, the completely different mindset, however unconscious it may be, of being white.

Though the novel is immensely rich in thematic content, it is also an interesting, engaging read, told in the simple, straightforward voice of Matilda. I found it much more enjoyable than attempting to read Dickens, and I might even go so far as to say Jones takes Dickens to a whole new level. Perhaps it helps that Jones is not paid by the word, to write serially as Dickens was. Perhaps it is simply that Jones has a richer understanding of race and power, being from a colony himself, and one that still struggles with racial tension between the colonial descendants and the Pacific Islanders. Whatever the reason, Mister Pip fully earns the awards bestowed upon it, and I fully recommend it for your pleasure and education.

No comments:

Post a Comment