Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
"You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames."
I love this quote from Mister Pip, which takes it's title from the main character of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The story unfolds slowly as the reader begins to piece together what's happening. The author doesn't feel it necessary to explain things to the reader, which is quite nice. I often lose interest in a book when an author spends the better part of a book just laying the groundwork for the story. The book is set on an island off the coast of New Zealand, which is caught in the middle of some type of civil war or uprising for control of the copper mines. When the trouble begins, all of the island's white inhabitants flee, except for Mr. Watts. He is married to a black woman who grew up on the island, and for whatever reason they stay. The couple is very aloof and remains somewhat of a mystery to the rest of the island population. The only time the couple is seen is when they appear on the beach with Mr. Watts pulling his wife on a trolley as if they are in a parade. They act as if there is no one else in the world, and they don't speak to each other or anyone else. To make the scene even more strange, sometimes Mr. Watts will wear a red clown's nose during these processions. The children, of course think they are crazy and have nicknamed him Popeye because of his appearance.
Out of the blue, Mr. Watts announces that he will reopen the island school for the children in the absence of their teacher. He explains up front that he's not an educator by trade, but that he'll do his best to stimulate the children's minds. His main way of doing this is by reading Great Expectations aloud to the children. In the midst of all the turmoil of their young lives, this gives them an opportunity to escape to another world, at least for a short time each day. Matilda is especially fascinated by this foreign world. She doesn't always understand what she hears, but she comes to care deeply about Pip. It's obvious to her that this story has a special meaning for Mr. Watts. We don't find out until much later the significance of the book and the other questions regarding Mr. Watts and his wife, such as the "parades" and why they didn't leave when they had the opportunity -- before the fighting comes all too close to the village.