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Pickle Me This

September 5, 2007

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

New Zealand novelist Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip tells the story of Matilda, a young girl whose South Pacific island is in the midst of brutal conflict during the 1990s. Against the most uncongruous backdrop of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Matilda unaffectedly conveys the violence and deprivation she witnessed and experienced, constructing an unlikely bridge between Dickens’ story and her own.

Her island is under a blockade, infrastructure has crumbled, and there is no school anymore, until Mr. Watts takes on the role of teacher. As teacher Mr. Watts– the last white man on the island, eccentric and strange even through Matilda’s eyes, he wears a clown nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley– is unsurprisingly unconventional, and invites the children’s parents into class to supplement his own knowledge. These lessons tell the history of the colour blue, how to kill an octopus, how to cheat the devil, why to have faith. Mr. Watt’s own area of expertise lies with literature, however, Dickens’ novel in particular. Matilda is immediately entranced: “By the end of chapter one I felt like I had been spoken to by this boy Pip. This boy who I couldn’t see to touch but knew by ear. I had found a new friend./ The surprising thing is where I’d found him– not up a tree, or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the fields streams, but in a book.”

Dickens’ story reconstructs 19th century England for this little girl on an island time and worlds away. Pip becomes real to Matilda, and as a character he much brings turmoil to the village– a harsh testament to the power of story. When Dickens’ novel goes missing, Matilda and her classmates reconstruct the story from the fragments they remember, their imaginations enhancing these inevitably. And what follows demonstrates the thin line drawn between our lives and our stories, and the fragmentary nature of both.

Matilda’s cool tone is tragic in the context of her whole story, but it also serves as a most engaging technique. To render the extraordinary as ordinary is a tremendous trick of voice. And what an experience as a reader, to be lulled by even tones, words you know, scenes you think you understand, and then to realize this is something entirely different. That this narrator will not take you where you expect to go, and neither will her story. So it goes with Matilda, allowing the violence and brutality of her recollections to be couched in terms which are easy to ingest, but once we’ve put the pieces together they are all the more horrifying for that ease. It is through these acts of reconstruction that Matilda becomes like Pip to us, demonstrating the way that stories come to life.

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