What is so odd about a book about a book?... I find it a little irksome; like having one author piggy-backing on another so as to appear all the more impressive. A thief of language, plot and character perhaps? A quick reference, a nod in the author's direction is usually allowable but there is so much of 'Mister Pip', by Lloyd Jones that depends on one's knowledge or interest in 'Great Expectations', by Charles Dickens that it provokes comment.
Yet, this is the story of Mathilda a 15 year old girl, living in Papua New Guinea with her mother Dolores in 1993, in the middle of a civil war. They live on an island on the outskirts of a jungle, so they are at once in and out of the modern world. Airplanes fly overhead,yet they sleep on mats made of leaves and live off whatever the jungle and the ocean provides. The jungle is crucial to the story. It is the source of great fear in the text; the fear of the unknown. Horrific atrocities take place there. It is the door from which the boogie-man can at any time appear, where people are taken, never to be seen again.
In a way, parts of this book reminded me of 'Lord of the Flies', where we see mob rule erode all vestiges of human kindness and civility. Yet the book also tells the story of Pop Eye, also known as Mr Watts, who is the only white man on the island and who takes on the role of teacher when war breaks out. He uses only one book, 'Great Expectations', by Charles Dickens, to entertain and instruct his pupils. We can see clear parallels between his life and Mathilda's, and that led by Pip, the hero of Dickens's novel.
However, 'Great Expectations' is the cause of much trouble, violence and even death on the island, something which brings into focus one of the main themes of Jones's text: how a book can influence a reader, how reality and fiction can sometimes get confused and how a book can change your life. As such, this is a very interesting text for those of us who love reading and get carried away by novels. Yet,as 'Great Expectations' is one of my favourite books, it was difficult to read about how one book can have such a devastating effect on a community. I did not enjoy having it tainted by such ugliness.
I also did not like the ending of the book. The author added on a couple of unnecessary chapters, as if desperate to keep the story going and unable to bring it to a close. We see how the narrator came to research and write the book, which does not add anything to the text, in fact it contradicts earlier assertions.
Parts of this book are quite poetic. The adults from the village visit the classroom and give the children some words of wisdom. These sections are beautifully written and have wonderful originality:
'You need to know about hell. Don't ask your father. His geography is limited. Hell is less important to him than London or Paris. All you do is shit and take photos in those places. Heaven and hell are the cities of the soul! That's where you grow!' (Extract from 'Mister Pip'.)
Jones has created some very memorable characters too and they come to life across the pages of this short novel. However, overall, this text seemed a little too contrived for my liking. It as if the author was desperate to blend 'Great Expectation' with another story, as someone might do for a school essay: "'Great Expectations' and 'Lord of the Flies' have many things in common, discuss!"
So, would I recommend this book to a friend? Yes, I think I would, even though it portrays such a bleak view of the world: the weak, humble and mannerly can only perish in the face of brute, animal force. It does not bode well for humankind. Yet, I suppose it could be read as a story of survival and I do think this would make a great book for a book club. Everyone would have opinions on it. A good friend of mine, who recommended the book to me, thought it was one of the best book she had read recently. It certainly makes for a great discussion - in fact we have one about it and it was very interesting. 'Mister Pip' is by no means a heart warming tale - which 'Great Expectation' is. Their plot-lines might parallel one another, but the writing style certainly does not. Still, you might like to give 'Mister Pip' a try. After all, not everyone can be Charles Dickens.