Reviewed by Sue Reynolds
I depend upon my friends for recommendations for good books. There are a lot of different reviews in newspapers, on radio and on websites but I could make myself crazy trying to keep up. I often think “So many books, so little time.” I was talking to Guy Gavriel Kay the last time we had lunch together and we both guestimate that given our ages, we have more unread books on our bookshelves than we’ll live to read. Especially because we keep buying more…
But I did buy and read one recently, based on a friend’s recommendation. It wasn’t even just the recommendation – it was because I came upon her crying as she was reading it. And I’ve never seen Frances cry before. Not that she doesn’t – just that I’ve never seen her do it.
The book is Mister Pip by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones.
The summary of the book is as follows (taken from the Random House website):
After the trouble starts and the soldiers arrive on Matilda’s island, only one white person stays behind. Mr. Watts, whom the kids call Pop Eye, wears a red nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley, and he steps in to teach the children when there is no one else. His only lessons consist of reading from his battered copy of Great Expectations, a book by his friend Mr. Dickens.
For Matilda, Dickens’s hero Pip becomes as real to her as her own mother, and the greatest friendship of her life has begun. Soon Mr. Watts’s book begins to inflame the children’s imaginations with dreams about Dickens’s London and the larger world. But how will they answer when the soldiers demand to know: where is this man named Pip?
Set against the stunning beauty of Bougainville in the South Pacific during the civil war in the early 1990s, Lloyd Jones’s breathtaking novel shows what magic a child’s imagination makes possible even in the face of terrible violence and what power stories have to fuel the imagination.
Okay, so that’s decent dustjacket copy. But it doesn’t begin to capture the magic of this book.
First of all, there’s a white, middle aged New Zealander writing in the voice of an indigenous teenaged girl – and capturing beautifully that sense of another culture.
Then there’s the story itself. Although this is a novel, the tension of the revolutionaries and the soldiers is a tale all to often told in real life. The geographical details are vague enough it could be taking place in one of 20 places in the world.
The stories are all powered by character and relationships, and there are several satisfyingly interwoven plots and subplots. The reader is as curious about Mr. Watts’ background as Mathilda is. And we come to love him, in a kind of puzzled way, as she does.
This is basically a book about the power of stories – whether those of fiction or those of real life characters. I found it a stunning tour-de-force. And that’s not jacket copy – it’s just my truth.
The losses we endure over the course of this book are unendurable. I cried too. And while I’m a suck when I watch movies, I very rarely cry when I read.
So there you have it. This book isn’t “a tearjerker” – it’s far too big a story for that. It’s quite simply the best thing I’ve read in a long time in that interior “important book” category.