It’s difficult not to think of Lord of the Flies when reading New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ brilliant and compelling work of fiction, Mr. Pip. It’s narrated by an eloquent 13-year-old native of a remote, South Pacific island called Bougainville, named Matilda Laimo. As Civil War breaks out, she tells of how an all-powerful mining company arranges for the evacuation of nearly all the white residents, leaving the islanders to the mercy of local rebels and the ravages of soldiers flown in by helicopter.
Matilda, a schoolgirl at the time the story begins, can’t help but express amazement and fascination with the one white person who has elected to stay behind. He’s an oddball Australian nicknamed Popeye, husband of a local beauty. And he’s taken it upon himself to further the education of the island children by reading to them each day from Charles Dickens’s masterwork Great Expectations, featuring the legendary Pip.
As the villagers become trapped between the rebels and the army, the children find themselves captivated by Pip and Dickens’s other characters and the English setting—and by the motifs of individual destiny and freedom that emerge from their reading of this classic novel.
They’re also caught between their fascination with his work of art and the practical wisdom of their island parents, personified by Matilda’s own mother. As the war heats up, Matilda’s passion for Dickensian story-telling takes the novel to a brutal and heart-breaking finale, when she learns lessons about heroism and self-sacrifice that no one should ever have to ponder. But thanks to this novel, Mister Pip, ponder them we do, in the reading of an island fable with huge implications for every mainland on Earth.
Reviewed by Alan Cheuse
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