Mister Pip, a prize winning novel by Lloyd Jones, uses meta-fiction to show how a village on a remote tropical island, cut off from the rest of the world due to a civil war in the early 1990’s, becomes enraptured by a story and endangered by those who cannot or will not separate fact from fiction. Set on the Papua New Guinean island of Bougainville during its conflict with the main island, the novel presents the reader with a bleak situation with no hope for escape. With the island abandoned by all those who could leave, including the protagonist’s father who leaves Matilda and her mother Dolores, the islanders must make do with what they have and to survive by their own devices. Armed with only his copy of Dickens’ Great Expectations, the only white man left on the island (married to a local) steps up to become the new school teacher.
Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip presents to the world a perspective on colonialism that most post-colonial literature rarely explores. This story of violence and civil war is played out on the beautiful and serene South Pacific island of Bougainville. In contrast to what most might expect from the actual horrible events that occurred in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the novel breezes over specific violent events. Jones prefers to delve into the struggling lives of those left on the island who have found themselves as pawns between the island rebels and ‘red skins.’ Jone’s two primary characters he focuses on are that of Mr. Watts and the young Matilda who presents the story through her eyes.
At times we come across a literary work which jars us from the comfort of our leisurely reading time; Jamaica Kincaid has not only taken us from our comfort zones but has made us feel a level of shame, guilt ‘and level of discomfort like no other. We feel as if her narrator is in the room telling us the history of ‘A Small Place’ which she herself associates with and the role in which we westerners have played in it’s current state of destitution. Difficult to compare to anything else A Small Place becomes an instantly distinct, memorable and thought provoking book. Upon reading some sympathetic and sensitive readers will almost feel sick.
Born as Elaine Richardson in St. John’s, Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid changed her name, as her family did not approve of her writing. Possible reasons for disapproval can be perceived when reading her essay titled A Small Place. Simple and divided into four parts, Kincaid portrays precisely her thoughts on New Antigua and her resentment of its past.
Puzzling to allocate such a book into a specific category, Kincaid begins her bitter narration assuming that readers are tourists in this small exotic island of Antigua. As the first section is read, you take the role of perhaps an ignorant visitor traveling for a short time by reason of getting away from your developed land and habitual lifestyle. Presumed that your short stay would be without worry and brimming with pleasure, the living conditions of locals “must never cross your mind” (Kincaid, 4). Following a conceivably satirical opening, Kincaid then recalls Antigua and its occupation by Great Britain. Irritated with the English culture and legacy of slavery at the time, she finds that the oppression of the past continues to corrupt Antiguans in the present. Moving her focus back to present day, Kincaid then analyzes further the dishonesty of those in power such as the re-building of an old library not motivated by the desire to aid but rather to remember previous forms of ruling. She continues to criticize Antiguan authorities as well as articulating the fears inhabitants have of the future.
What is it about tales from faraway, exotic lands that entice us so? Maybe it’s the thought of a different life, an escape from our own. Our mundane lives aren’t so bad, but we want to try something different. We want to get away, go somewhere, anywhere but here. Lloyd Jones flips the tables on us with Mr. Pip. Matilda is a young teenage girl living in 90’s Bougainville, an island now part of Papua New Guinea, trapped in the midst of civil war. She dreams of a faraway town called “London” in a story she hears. It’s a subtle piece of meta-fiction about a girl telling her story about the experience of a story told to her by Mr. Watts, the last white-man on the island and substitute teacher. The story Mr. Watts tells is something like Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, in that it is that story but with some liberties taken with its interpretation as read to the children of the island. Great Expectations enraptures Matilda and as the events of Mister Pip unfold, the life lessons of Great Expectations and Mr. Watts weave together to blur the lines of reality and literature and teach not just the children, but the adult islanders that “our voice was special, and we should remember this whenever we used it, and remember that whatever else happened to us in our lives our voice could never be taken away from us” (256). If you have nothing else in this world, you still have your voice. In the quiet stillness of one’s mind, voice is all you need to make whatever of yourself and for yourself. A story and a character can become whatever you need it to be.
I strongly recommend the book A Small Place to any potential tourists; and since, as Jamaica Kincaid herself points out, “every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere” this book is a must read for everyone (18). Kincaid’s book highlighting Antigua, from a tourist and a native point of view, is enlightening. However, readers must be prepared to find anger, unfortunate truths, and accusations directed toward themselves between the covers.
The tone is angry. As the editor of The New Yorker put it, A Small Place “was very angry. Not badly written. Angry.” (qtd by Bouson 93). This is why Kincaid’s essays—originally intended to be published in the New Yorker where she was a staff writer—were published into a separate book instead of a magazine. However, the book’s anger is necessary; there is no other way to express the wrong-doings of so many on the natives of Antigua. Kincaid and this book are angry, and they have every right to be.
If you are looking for a book about what to expect when traveling to Antigua, then Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is an option, though perhaps not of the variety you had in mind. Part travel guide, part memoir, Kincaid’s novella takes us on a tour of Antigua past and present; from a small island under British colonial rule, to a small island trying to stay afloat, dependant on everything it has tried to rid itself of – an outsiders presence.
“Everyone called him Pop Eye.” However, this character named Mr. Watts, who would also come to call himself Mr. Pip, was far more than the young children in a small Bougainville village could even begin to imagine. Mister Pip is a brilliant novel that portrays a crucial growing period of a young girl named Matilda in a small island village, and shows how her life was so profoundly changed and influenced by an old white man who had volunteered to teach in times of conflict.
Situated on the war-torn island of Bougainville in the South Pacific, Lloyd Jones’ novel “Mister Pip” finds the reader experiencing life through the eyes of thirteen year old Matilda. Due to the tumultuous political climate, all teachers and foreign dignitaries have fled from the island, save one, the mysterious white man commonly referred to by the villagers as Pop Eye, aka, Mr. Watts. Being one of the few remaining people with an education, by default, Mr. Watts takes on the task of being the village school teacher. It is through Mr. Watts that Matilda comes to meet a certain Mr. Dickens, more commonly known as seventeenth century author, Charles Dickens. Every class, Mr. Watts reads a chapter from the novel Great Expectations out loud to the class, transporting Matilda away from the horrible realities of her real life to Victorian England, where she immerses herself in the adventures of her new found friend, Mr. Pip (to whom the title of the novel not-so-subtly alludes).
An isolated island strife with civil war forced colonizers back to their homelands leaving villagers, like thirteen year old Matilda, without simple belongings and only the hope of a better world. Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip is Matilda’s account of her village’s struggles and small victories in hoping to realize that brighter future.
The children of the small tropical Bougainville village had come accustomed to the simple luxuries of the “white” world that were introduced by their colonizers. However, they struggle to find activities to pass time, since their teachers have fled, and a blockade prevents the “luxuries” from reaching them. All of the villagers are shocked when Mr. Watts, the man the “tribe had forgotten”, and the sole white man left, re-opens the classroom. His eccentric and mysterious demeanour discourages some community member like Matilda’s mother, Dolores. Mr. Watts receives the brunt of opposition from the very vocal and faithful Dolores. She is against his readings and discussions on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, which happens to be the only lesson he offers. He also invites mature members of the village to teach cultural and traditional wisdom.
The combination of Dolores’ actions out of resentment to Watts’ “white” ideals and the red army and rebels advance on the village leads to a series of devastating events. Despite the tribulation, Mr. Watts’ teachings encourage the children to “reimagine the world, and to see the possibility of change”. Much to her mother’s dismay, Matilda engulfs herself in the captivating Great Expectations. Jones uniquely uses the character of Pip in Great Expectations to effectively parallel with the life of Matilda. Jones’ narrative is raw in dealing with such dramatic content, such as war and merciless killings. His surprising ending leaves the reader sifting their memory in search of any foreshadowing.