This is the first of Lloyd Jones’s books to be published in the UK and it makes you wonder why? Mister Pip was nominated for the Man Booker PrIze last year and would have been a worthy winner. As the title suggests, it is, in part, about a reading of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, but to leave it at that would do this novel a great disservice. It is a story, told through the eyes of Matilda (a young girl at the start of the story and a young adult at the end of it) and her life on a remote Pacific island in the grips of civil war. The only white man on the island, the eccentric Mr Watts, re-opens the village school. He has no teaching experience, only his love of Great Expectations. The village becomes witness to a number of atrocities, but it is Mr Watts’s storytelling that enables Matilda to survive.
On the one hand, I loved this book has a story about teaching. Watts is no trained teacher, but a gifted one nonetheless, recognising that at the heart of allgood teaching is the relationship of trust and respect between teacher and pupil. But more than that, this is a book whose extraordinary simplicity of narrative conceals a tremendous power. It is a book about remembering and, therefore, storytelling. And that even made-up stories can hide a greater truth. Remembering and telling stories are what keep us human – it is when we lose the capacity for story that we cease to be humans and atrocities are committed. And telling stories also allow us to dream, to plan for our futures and, therefore, this is also a book about storytelling as a survival technique. Whether Matilda, as a child, is trying to remember her father, or as an adult remembering her mother and Mr Watts; whether the schoolchildren are trying to remember Great Expectations once the island’s copy has been lost; whether it is the islanders remembering their ancestors and folk knowledge; whether it is the rebels remembering what it is to be human – this whole book is, in fact, an act of remembrance and also a celebration of what it means to be human. This is a tremendous little book.