One of the most powerful books chronicling an untold story, Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones is set in an unknown island on the Pacific Ocean – which contextually unfolds to being a narrative set in the civil war on Bougainville Island in the early 1990s. Chronicling the story through a little girl, Matilda, as it takes place through her eyes, the tale narrates life on Bougainville during the civil war.
Matilda survives the war and lives to tell a powerful story of her connection with Pip, a character from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and how he helps her keep her desire to stay alive, and to survive all odds. Everything that Matilda knew, nurtured and assumed to be familiar is destroyed. The tense backdrop of the civil war and the colonization of the island and its impact on life in Bougainville are portrayed with a sense of muted dignity and power.
The teacher, Mr. Watts, is benevolently nicknamed Pop-Eye because of his bulging eyes. He was a white man, who married a native – and that sets the context for his choice of remaining in the island long after the white men left. Watts takes it upon him to educate the children – and turns to Charles Dickens to help him sail through. Matilda, the protagonist, is one of his students.
Matilda’s mother does not trust the teacher, and tries all that she can to ensure that her daughter’s mind is not polluted by the white man – and this includes showing up in the classroom of the teacher, stealing and hiding his copy of the book that her daughter “shouldn’t” be reading, and that leads to a dangerous consequence for the teacher when the soldiers arrive on the island – for the name Pip is found written on the sea shore, and is mistaken to be a spy’s name.
With the mounting tension, Matilda is offered a privilege in the form of a chance to escape the island with Watts – but this would mean going away without her mother. Before she makes a choice, the rebels arrive on the island. What happens next, changes the direction of Matilda’s life entirely – and she survives to tell the tale through a voice of peace, as she carries on in life in a way that puts her in a place of peaceful choice.
Mister Pip, in all fairness, is an experience. It takes you through the myriad shades of conflict, and how it can affect a very private life, and culminate in crossroads. The book is a gentle reminder of the fact that choice begets consequences, and to make sure that the consequences one has to deal with are peaceful, their choices need to be as peaceful.