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the complete review - fiction
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- Awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, 2007
- Mister Pip was made into a film in 2012, directed by Andrew Adamson and starring Hugh Laurie
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A+ : terribly effective, very well done
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Globe & Mail
|London Rev. of Books
|The NY Sun
|The NY Times
|The New Yorker
|Sydney Morning Herald
|The Washington Post
Not quite a consensus, but most think it is very, very good
From the Reviews:
- "It reads like the effortless soar and dip of a grand piece of music, thrilling singular voices, the darker, moving chorus, the blend of the light and shade, the thread of grief urgent in every beat and the occasional faint, lingering note of hope. However, unlike the orchestration of massed voices and instruments, the finale does not bring wonder but despair. And that's a wonder in itself, that such a grim subject can still carry something as luminous and as revealing to readers worlds away from a forgotten village on the pacific." - Helen Elliott, The Age
- "Mister Pip's twists and turns, and use of Dickens's novel, are ingenious. But it is hard to know what to make of it. So much rests on Jones's tone, which is deceptively simple but accrues the uneasy ambiguity of Conrad's stories. On the one hand, Mister Pip seems to be a love song to the enduring power of great writing. On the other, it is as insistent as a cultural studies student about readers' powers to reinterpret texts. It invites sentiment yet gently mocks readers by exaggerating its own tropical colour. It teases us about the bona fides -- and ultimate effect -- of Mr Watts. Mister Pip is a post-colonial fable about reading that is as open-ended as a myth. It may be this very sinuousness, this insistent refusal of any fundamental meaning in a global age, that has caused Mister Pip to be snapped up by publishers across the world, earning Jones a lifetime of advances." - Delia Falconer, The Australian
- "What follows 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. Mister Pip is a powerful and humane novel from one of New Zealand’s top writers." - Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times
- "Although written by a 50-year-old white male New Zealander in the voice of a teenage Papuan girl, Mister Pip is thoroughly believable and compelling (it would be even stronger, had Jones resisted the urge to use the last three chapters for a long and unnecessary analysis of Matilda's experiences from her perspective as an adult). That aside, as a snapshot into the horrors of Bougainville and how white culture has affected the lives of indigenous peoples in every imaginable way while turning its face away from the consequences, Mister Pip is convincing; it is easy to forget this is a novel, and not a personal memoir of a real and horrifying story." - Katherine Gordon, Globe & Mail
- "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." - Olivia Laing, The Guardian
- "If Mister Pip has one faint blemish, it is that some of its imaginative connections are overstated. We know what Matilda has gained from an exposure to Dickens: further comment can be superfluous. Rarely, though, can any novel have combined charm, horror and uplift in quite such superabundance." - D.J.Taylor, The Independent
- "There are some harrowing, scenes, but Jones avoids being overly sentimental. Much is being made of Mister Pip in the southern hemisphere, and with good reason: it is an intelligent novel that says as much about the power of reading as it does about bloodshed and loss." - Anthony Byrt, New Statesman
- "Mr. Jones's attempt to enliven this theme of the influence of literature founders, and he weighs down his promising premise with literary clichés. (...) There are some nice riffs on Dickens's novel (.....) But devotees of Dickens will be let down by Mr. Jones's tribute -- any great expectations for Mister Pip will be disappointed by its saccharine sentimentality." - Chloë Schama, The New York Sun
- "Mr. Jones's book seriously flirts with Pip Fatigue. (...) But Mister Pip moves easily, even comically, into its Great Expectations fetish. (...) Once Mr. Jones has exhausted the direct opportunity to instruct, his story become much more manipulative." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "The fablelike simplicity of Matilda’s telling belies the complexity of the novel, which takes several subtle and unexpected turns." - The New Yorker
- "The novel, a 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner, is redeemed by the quiet charm of Matilda's narrative, which loosens up in her vivid recollections of home, with its lazy dogs, 'blimmin' roosters' and the colourful wisdom of its elders, and which constricts in the moments of horror that assail the village in the later chapters. It does not have the substance, however, nor the consistency, to merit a surprise Booker win next month." - Killian Fox, The Observer
- "Here is a novel that, with amplitude and ease, affirms the acts of reading and writing as precious pursuits, as acts of survival, escape, renewal; as something wondrous, comforting -- dangerous. (...) The book is front-end heavy, yet it sticks; somehow it makes you just as tipsy as you need to be to love it -- just as tipsy as it is." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman
- "Jones’s strongest suit is fantasy, which dominates this book, and is its subject. (...) Once the wars are over -- the real one, and the one for the children’s minds -- Jones seems to lose interest. But for most of its short life this book achieves the rare aim of portraying goodness -- in Daniel’s grandmother, in Matilda’s mother, in Mister Pip himself. And we believe in it, because it is mysterious and flawed." - Carole Angier, The Spectator
- "This novel about another novel is a skilful allegory of colonization (…...) Jones has done something very difficult with this novel: he has taken a recent and brutal piece of contemporary history and has told a story that not only reveals these events to the wider world but also shows what they mean in the larger and more abstract field of human behaviour. (…) It's also a novel about imagination and about the power and value of art as a potentially redemptive force in a nightmare situation. (…) For so brutal a reminder of atrocities so close to home, this is still an oddly satisfying book that goes on resonating long after you get to the end." - Kerryn Goldsworth, Sydney Morning Herald
- "(I)t is darker and more morally complex than it first appears. (...) Lloyd Jones gives the tired post-colonial themes of self-reinvention and the reinterpretation of classic texts a fresh, ingenious twist but his real achievement is in bringing life and depth to his characters." - Lindy Burleigh, The Telegraph
- "For all its gestures towards complexity, Mister Pip rarely moves beyond stereotypes: the wise but eccentric white man, the superstitious black woman, the gun-toting rebel. Matilda's journey is meant to be comparable to Pip's. Yet Jones turns Great Expectations into a sacred text -- an emblem of Western imaginative freedom as contrasted with simple island life." - Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph
- "It’s clear from the first page that it is prize-winning stuff. (…) His is a bold inquiry into the way that we construct and repair our communities, and ourselves, with stories old and new." - Melissa Katsoulis, The Times
- "Matilda is in the tradition of Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, conjuring up an adult world before she can fully understand it; and Mister Pip is a poignant and impressive work which can take its place alongside the classic novels of adolescence." - Michelene Wandor, Times Literary Supplement
- "Jones' creative story draws parallels between Pip's trials in 19th-century England and the harsh landscape of Matilda's deprived childhood. But the narrative is bogged down by stunted dialogue and unrealistic human behavior. The recounting of the horrendous murders of some key characters is told in the objective, stilted language of a world-weary journalist and doesn't evoke the shock it should." - Carol Memmott, USA Today
- "Lloyd Jones's spare, haunting fable explores the power and limitations of art as Matilda chronicles 21 increasingly desperate months. (...) Jones's tale would be bleak indeed were it not for the fact that in their ultimate moments Mr. Watts and her mother surmount their differences to affirm a shared moral code." - Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Most of Mister Pip is an account of a period in the early 1990s in blockaded Bougainville, during a time of what is essentially a civil war, narrated by Matilda, who was then in her early teens.
(Bougainville is an island off Papua New Guinea, the local mining and then political troubles that loom so large here are historical fact.)
Matilda's father, like many of the local men, went to work in Australia a few years earlier.
Once war starts Matilda and her mother and the other islanders are entirely cut off from the world.
Even before that,
Bougainville was a remote place, and life very simple and basic there.
The loss of contact and supplies causes some hardship -- "Then, one night, the lights went out for good. There was no more fuel for the generators." -- but the kids, especially, readily adapt to the circumstances, and life doesn't change all that much.
For a while there's no school, either, but then the only white man left in town steps in.
Mr.Watts -- called Pop Eye -- is married to one of the locals, Grace, but they live somewhat apart from the community.
Their odd habits -- occasionally Pop Eye dons a red clown's nose and pulls his wife around in a trolley -- are mysterious, but, at least from Matilda's childish point of view, only so far out of the ordinary.
isn't ideally suited to be a teacher, as he acknowledges, but he tries his best -- and he does have one trick up his sleeve: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, from which he reads a chapter a day to the children.
Despite its foreignness and strangeness -- all the more difficult to comprehend in this environment, so different from 19th century England, and by kids who have been exposed to so little of any outside world -- the children (and especially Matilda) are captivated by the book.
It was always a relief to return to Great Expectations.
It contained a world that was whole and made sense, unlike ours.
Matilda's god-fearing mother is suspicious of Mr.Watts' book, making for some tension, but what goes on in the classroom remains largely something between the enthralled children and their teacher.
Mr.Watts does, however, ask the mothers to come to class and share their knowledge, too.
"I believe, with your parents' help, we can make a difference to our lives", he suggested early on, and though the mothers have only limited local knowledge or advice he welcomes it all (often to the embarrassment of the children).
The ugly outside world and conflict cannot be kept entirely at bay.
It isn't paradise that is ruined, but the few holds and hopes they have are vulnerable.
Even Great Expectations is taken from them -- but only the book itself, and only after they have finished reading it (for the first time).
So Mr.Watts has the inspired idea to try to recreate it, for everyone to share the bits they remember and try to piece it together again.
The kids take it very seriously -- "Our duty was to save Mr.Dickens' finest work from extinction" is how they see it -- and, of course, in remembering it they gain new insight into the work as well.
But it is more than just that:
Of course I did not tell my mum about our project.
She was liable to say, "That won't hook a fish or peel a banana."
And she was right.
But we weren't after fish or bananas.
We were after something bigger.
We were trying to get ourselves another life.
Matilda takes to writing the fragments she recalls in the sand (she has no paper, of course), and:
In the morning, before my mum was up, before anyone could see it and steal it, or misunderstand it, I went down to the beach to get my words.
An earlier misunderstanding about what was written in the sand contributed to the spiral of disaster that visits them.
There's no escape from it, not even re-imagination or story-telling; indeed, the troubles are exacerbated by Mr.Watts' well-meaning transformation into Mr.Dickens and then Pip himself .....
Mister Pip may appear, at first sight, to be yet another book about the redemptive power of literature and imagination, cleverly drawing parallels between an old classic and contemporary life, but it's far more than that.
And, even just taken at its fundamental level as a story, it is, simply, wondrous.
The reason the novel works particularly well lies in the tone.
It is not the teen Matilda that writes the account, but rather the university student Matilda, now far removed from Bougainville.
"I have tried not to embellish", she says, and it is this lack of embellishment, the (deceptive) simplicity of the presentation, that makes it so utterly compelling.
The living conditions on the island are as basic as can be imagined (or, arguably, even more basic that most readers of this book likely can imagine) but Matilda doesn't dwell on this.
It's just a given, like so much else -- just as the world often seems to children, who accept whatever the conditions are without a real sense of what alternatives there are.
The Dickensian alternative they are presented with is, of course, beyond foreign and yet something they can also relate to
-- but again, Jones doesn't force the issue.
Mr.Watts eventually shares his own history -- and how he came to live there with Grace, the smart local girl who went abroad to study but came back as something of a baffling disappointment.
The grown Matilda, for whom Dickens continues to be something of an anchor, also manages to fill in a few blanks, but here as elsewhere Jones doesn't try to do too much or offer explanations for everything; Matilda herself is still working through all these events and facts.
The result is an impressive and affecting novel that covers an enormous amount of territory, from clashes of civilisations to the power and possibilities of literature.
And it's a wonderful, if heart-breaking (shattering, really) story.
A very fine achievement, highly recommended.
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Mister Pip - the film:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Lloyd Jones is a leading New Zealand writer, and was born in 1955.
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© 2007-2021 the complete review
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