Tarah's Reviews > Mister Pip

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
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Sep 29, 09


I *hated* this book. Let me tell you why: this novel read like this: look at this poor, uneducated island, and these poor, noble-savage ignorant and simple black people who are caught in the middle of a violent conflict between the savage black rebels who will eventually sell you out and the even more savage redskins (no joke, "redskins") who terrorize you, rape you, and machete you into pieces they will then feed to a pig. The violence, indeed, the whole setting, seemed wildly superfluous. The novel was like the literary version of that horrific Mel Gibson movie "Apocolypto" (or however you spell it) which was basically a 2 hour long version of "ooooh, look at the savages and how savage they are! Aren't they savage!!". To add insult to injury, the only "civilizing" force on the island is a white man who sprinkles down the magic of white civilization, imagination, and joy by reading Great Expectations. Look, I loved Tale of Two Cities, but Great Expectations? Come on. Someone needs to tell this author we've moved on from Colonialism (or at least we try to pretend we have). We call it "Post-Colonialism" now. We don't write about people of other races as though only we and our white civilization can save them, like they are only there for us to be saved, like they are only brutalized victims or brutal victimizers. And we definitely don't do it while self-righteously clinging to Great Expectations as a panacea for human understanding. Very "Shakespeare in the Bush" only without the actual intentions of finding anything out about the power of literature, instead it just reads as the power of the white ego.
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message 1: by Alexa (new)

Alexa Hmm a few things struck me with your review. Firstly, the violence that is portrayed in book is all rather necessary in explaining how detached Matilda is from what it going on around her. It displays her depression, at the time that she wrote the book. Also, the name 'redskins' is the name given by Bourganvillian's for the Papua New Guinean soldiers at the time of the war. Using the name gives makes the book more believable in that, this is what Bourganvillian's would have called the soldiers. The point of Mr Watts and the fact that he is white, isn't to signify the 'magic of white civilization', but to show how opening up your mind to a new, unlikely idea or, in this case person, can free you from situations and psychological barriers. Also, Jones' does not show the white civilization necessarily as an author of salvation, but rather, looks at Western civilization as a whole, in that, during the civil war, the Western world did not give aid to Bourganville when they needed it, but rather, they let Papua New Guinean soldiers blockade the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Bourganvillians. It shows Mr. Watts as someone who stands out and away from the Western culture, not as a representative of it.


Tarah Thanks for your thoughts, Alexa. It's been a while since I've read the book, so I'm a bit fuzzy, but am game to continue the conversation here. I'm not actually fundamentally disagreeing with what you are saying in terms of the details of the book. The violence in the book can be used to show how detached Matilda is. And the "redskins" are named by their (native) adversaries. And we might reasonably argue that Mr. Watts as white in a non-white society can serve to show how different perspectives can open up your mind, etc. So, sure, I'm can certainly be with you on these points. But those things don't lessen my concern with some of the bigger picture questions about the novel. We might ask: what else does such violence do other than help show us how detached Matilda is? (Does it, for example, lead us to a certain understanding of a whole group of people?). Or, if one native group calls another "redskins," how does the novel help us make sense of that, or does it? What greater purpose does that serve in the narrative? Take the last point, for example, that Mr. Watts as a white person in a non-white setting shows that opening your mind to new ideas can free you psychologically/mentally. Let's agree that this freedom is a good thing (I think it's easy enough to say that's true, and that the novel wants us to agree that it's true). What's troubling to me as a reader is that it is the native non-white population that needs to learn such freedom from Western wisdom. It takes Charles Dickens (channeled through Watts) to bring any sweetness and light to the imaginations and minds of the native people. And I find that a bit morally distasteful. Don't get me wrong, I believe in the power of literature. I teach literature for a living, in fact. But in a book where such power is coded as Western/white power, something that if only-these-poor-ignorant-native-nonwhite-people-could-read-it-would-really-change-their-lives, etc... I find that broader message from the novel that doesn't sit well. It would be interesting if there was more of a sense as to Mr. Watts's transformation. Obviously we're meant to understand that Dickens, and _Great Expectations_ in particular, has dramatically transformed him and given him a type of mental freedom that he wants to share with others (with good intentions, etc.), but what we don't get is that there is any kinetic cultural exchange going on. Mr. Watts seems to bring a lot to the natives, but doesn't really take anything from them (e.g. wisdom, perspective, good/bad ideas, whatever). His job in the novel is to channel out only, not receive anything in. And the native people's job is to either learn from him, or ignore the wisdom he brings (to their own peril).

Your last point I think is very interesting, in that Mr. Watts stands apart from Western Civilization in that he is willing to 'get involved' (or circumstantially caught up in) a situation the rest of the world seems happy to ignore, but again my concern here is less that he is a good/bad person, and more that he is the beacon of decency and goodness in a novel where all the other characters (who are all native) lie, rape, kill around him, or, in the best case scenario, are unable to actualize their own mental/psychological freedom without a guiding light from a white man (Watts) imparting the wisdom of another white man (Dickens).

Again, these broader themes in the novel don't mean your observations are untrue. But what it does mean is that we need to think about novels on multiple levels, because they are working on multiple levels, and sometimes the implicit lessons from the novel are more troubling than the explicit ones. For me, in this novel, that was certainly the case.


Tarah In prepping for class today, I was re-reading a fantastic essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, happily made popular on Youtube (narrated by Djimon Hounsou). It reminded me of this book (a year later) and, I think, handily sums up my major issues with this book. Here's the text of the essay:
http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How... (but you can also google the title of the text and watch that great youtube reading)


Natalie O'donnell Hi there, I have found so many of the reviews of this book interesting. It has been ages since I read it but have just joined goodreads so find myself revisiting different books. I note that most of the American reviews of this book are very similar to yours and I wonder if part of the response is from never having heard of Bougainville and its terrible war before and assuming it is made up? My brother was in the New Zealand army and part of the peacekeeping force there so I was very aware of the issues when reading this book and had none of the responses American readers seem to have had. Is it because I am a white New Zealander who loves Dickins and therefore have my blinkers on?

My brother said that most of his mission was to hunt communities out of the bush and tell them the war was over and that it was safe to come out. People literally hid for years and no one in the world cared. Schools, hospitals & communities disappeared over night and the buildings were left to the jungle. So the world of Matilda and 'Mr Pip' seemed quite a good context for a story to me. I don't think it would take long for most societies to end up this way after a few years in the terrifying wild. Would you have had the same response to this book if it were an american teacher in rural Afghanistan?

Even when the (NZ brokered) peace deal was agreed the UN didn't support it as the peacekeepers agreed to keep the peace completely unarmed. I am tempted to argue that Bougainville & New Zealand are so far away from most readers it is hard to get context or to believe that this was a real country in a real war. I would have hoped reading this book might have led readers to read up on the subject matter to find a bit more about this world we live in.


Natalie O'donnell Here is a little snippet of Lloyd Jones continuing his connection with the country http://bougainvillelibrary.org.nz/about


Mela Natalie, I log in to answer exactluy (ok, ALMOST exactly)wt you said. I'm from Argentina and I read this book as a homework. Before we started reading, she gave us some background information, so that when we read, we can understand its reasons (or at least to know that wt we were about to read could have happened). The truth is that I got trully horrorized by wt humankind could do. And this has happened since forever. And wt you say is true: most NorthAmericans (from the USA actually) are kind of close-mined, not just as regards this book, but so many others, movies and even news. Instead of taking advantage of wt the world offers us nowadays, meeting people and cultures all over the world, accepting them as they are, they are actually trying to convinve everybody that THEIR way of living is the only one possible, and as they are in a post-colonized era, everybody should be. I now tell you that even the term "post-colonization" is nowadays outdated.

Ah, another important point to consider: the author is from New Zeland, so he is not the typical colonizer who strongly wants to spread his culture to the uncivilized and barbarean cultures. He is part of that comunity he is writing about.

So, Tara, this is an excelent learning oportunity for you (and the rest who reads about ANYTHING): reading is not a matter of just collecting books in a bookshelf, it's not just to say "oh, I've read this author, this other book", Reading is about exploring the human mind, different perspectives, different worlds that we may never ever have the possibility to meet in real life. So, every time you pick up a book, I recommend you to explore its context, its author, his history, and especially when and where and how he wrote that book. After a little bit of knowledge of the background in which the book was "created", the reading becomes much more meaningful. It happened to me that a few years ago, when I was at high school, I read so many books just for the sake of reading, and I almost never liked them, I didn't understand them. But this last two years I reread some of them, and the knowledge I now have of the world has openned my eyes and I completely changed my perspetive about them.

So, hopefully, you'll get the point.


Elizabeth Hey Tarah, I don't really want to disagree with your review because it's been a while since I've read this book and it's fading fast from my mind and I can understand your criticism. I do want to add some thoughts for a little bit of context. So, PNG was pretty full-on in the 90s' civil war (from reports I read; I wasn't there), and I have a few family members who have lived in various parts of PNG (granted; not anywhere near Bogainville) at different times and tell some pretty hairy stories. And it really can be a bit savage in the most literal 'cruel, vicious, violent, fierce' sense of the word. Just in September 2 people were killed and 7 injured in a pretty terrifying sounding machete ambush. Also in 2011 a New Zealand man was shot by arrows and beaten in a western PNG village while trying to rescue his anthropologist girlfriend whom one on the villagers wanted to marry. That happened. In 2011. They are isolated incidents, of course, but I think they are possibly a bit reflective of the kind of savage violence that happened during the civil war.
But I could be wrong, and this story might not be that representative; I just wanted to share the thoughts that popped into my head while I read your review.


message 8: by K. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K. Carters I'm enjoying the book but it does feel like a Victorian novel (sort of RM Ballantyne or RL Stevenson). I was surprised to see it was set in the 1990s. I've been to remote parts of the globe and seen whole villages watching satellite tv or in internet cafes. It was a bit 1880s (not sure that's an idiom yet!) but it's sort of cute


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