Lloyd Jones (2007) Mr Pip John Murray, London; 240 pp.; ISBN 978-0-71956994-4
The island of Bougainville is on the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. In the 1970s a copper mine was established there but over the next two decades local opposition to the mine grew rapidly due to concerns about corruption in the use of funds, the environmental impact of the mine and its processing works, and the negative effects on local communities. In the late 1980s this led to an armed secessionist movement seeking independence from Papua New Guinea. The central government responded with a ruthless and bloody crackdown, aided by foreign mercenaries. The violence eventually ended in 1997 and the island is now part of an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea.
Lloyd Jones's novel is mostly set in a remote village on Bougainville during the rebellion. Matilda, a girl entering puberty in the early 1990s, tells the story of a white man, Tom Watts, who lives in her village with his local wife Grace. The couple met overseas when Grace was studying but they returned to live here and reside in an abandoned house built by missionaries. Grace was clever as a young woman and obtained a scholarship to study abroad, but when she returns with her white husband she is no longer her old self and lives largely in seclusion. When she does make an appearance in public, she is pulled along on a trolley by Mr Watts. He sports a white linen suit and a clown’s red nose. The locals call him Pop Eye because of his bulging eyes but Matilda sees that those eyes have known suffering.
Because of the violence, all the foreigners on the island – missionaries, teachers and mining company staff – have left. There is an economic blockade and many goods, including medicines, have run out. As is ever the case in war, it is the innocent who suffer most.
Mr Watts is the only white man left. One day he takes it upon himself to re-open the village school and to teach the children. He warns them he is no teacher and avoids subjects like science, but covers the basics of spelling and arithmetic and also brings in local women to talk about their experiences and indigenous knowledge. But the core of Mr Watts’s teaching is Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. He promises to read a chapter a day to the children – fifty-nine chapters in all.
The children have no idea what to expect and their understanding of England, let alone nineteenth century England, could probably be sketched on a fingernail. Still, they are quickly drawn in by the story. Matilda in particular is fascinated by the tale that Mr Watts recounts, not only the details of the plot but also the way in which he conveys the story and acts out the parts of the characters. For Matilda, the important lesson of the novel is that one’s life can change quickly and dramatically due to events outside one’s control. This resonates with her because the onset of the conflict on Bougainville has separated her and her mother from her father who is with a mining company in Australia and unable to return home.
Matilda cannot resist telling her mother the story of Pip, the boy whose life is transformed in Dickens’s novel. At first her mother is interested, but over time she comes to doubt Mr Watts’s intentions. Matilda’s mother is deeply religious in an unthinking way and is worried that Mr Watts is leading the children astray, casting doubt on the existence of the devil and seeming to condone acts of sin.
For a long time the armed conflict is distant and the villagers hear only rumours. Army helicopters from the mainland fly over but otherwise life is undisturbed. Eventually soldiers arrive looking for rebels. They force people to record their names then get angry when they believe someone called Pip is missing from the list. Mr Watts tries to explain the mix-up but soldiers are never very bright and take out their frustrations by killing chickens and smashing and burning property. They warn they will be back to look for Pip. On the second visit the confusion persists and is exacerbated by Mr Watts, so the soldiers burn down the houses in the village, save for the home of Tom and Grace Watts.
Later it is the turn of the rebels to visit. They are undisciplined and suspicious, especially of Mr Watts, but he strikes a bargain with them: he will tell them his story over seven nights if they then leave. It is reminiscent of the Thousand and One Nights and works as effectively. The rebels and villagers alike are spellbound by his story. Mr Watts traces his early life, his meeting Grace, the tragedy of their losing a daughter and their decision to come and live on Bougainville. It’s a nicely crafted tale – but is a word of it true?
The rebels melt away one night and the army quickly arrives on the scene. What ensues brings the story to a crisis and the actions of Mr Watts, Matilda and Matilda’s mother, each of them concealing the truth, have disastrous consequences.
The latter part of the novel traces Matilda in later life. As a university student she visits Mr Watts’s first wife June in suburban Wellington, New Zealand. Grace was a neighbour of Tom and June, and Matilda wonders how Grace could have survived in such a bleak and soul-destroying place. (I found this a little unfair – it is not just the suburbs of Wellington that are like this.) June says Tom was weak, a fantasist and too fond of making up stories, but Matilda sees some important links to the Mr Watts of her childhood.
As the novel closes Matilda is in England, chasing traces of Dickens in London and Kent. The exercise exhausts and deflates her. She realises that in many ways Mr Watts was her Dickens and that his interpretation of Pip’s story was perhaps more cogent than the yarn spun by the famous author.
Despite the close quarters of the action and the dramatic circumstances on Bougainville, I found much of the description in this novel to be understated and occasionally flat. The action in the last part of the book is only covered in a summary fashion – far less satisfying and less convincing than the slow unfolding of events earlier on.
Mr Watts is a feeble character, well-meaning and kind, but naïve and spineless. Naivety is dangerous, and others suffer needlessly because of Mr Watts’s weaknesses. Yet he enriches Matilda’s life. Perhaps Jones is telling us that irrespective of a person’s character and actions, if we remain observant and curious we can learn something from everyone: life is full of lessons if we have a mind to learn.