Sunday, 20 January 2008

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

John Murray

BOOKER favourite Mister Pip fell at the last post, to be (ahem) pipped by Anne Enright's The Gathering. But it's made record sales all over the Southern Hemisphere.

It's a book I loved - until the end, when Jones dropped the ball.

Mister Pip is set on Bougainville island, a tropical paradise set in a dicey position between Australia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

In the 1990s, angered by a mining company's exploitation of its huge copper sources while they got a pittance for the millions the company made, islanders revved up a Rising, and Papua New Guinea responded by sending in mercenaries - known to the very black-skinned Bougainvilleans as 'redskins' for their reddish-brown complexions.

This is the background of Lloyd Jones's story. It's narrated by Matilda, who's 13 when it starts.

The islanders' laughing-stock is Popeye, the last white left among them after sanctions are imposed. Popeye wanders around wearing a clown's red nose and towing his island-born wife on a trolley.

But when the rebellion begins and the men disappear to join the 'Rambos' - the guerrilla army of resistance - Popeye is asked to fill in as the teacher in the local school.

Transmuted into 'Mr Watts', he reads to the children from Dickens' Great Expectations, and they become increasingly haunted by the story.

There are threatening, then violent, and finally murderous visits by the Redskins and the Rambos.

It's gripping and enchanting, until it culminates in three strangely affect-less murders, upon which Matilda migrates to her father in Australia, grows up, becomes a Dickens-focused academic, and so on.

At this stage I felt a muttering begin in my rebellious heart. Why was a white man the centre of the story about these black islanders? Why were they portrayed as so amusingly naïve and simple? Suddenly I didn't like Mister Pip any more.

But for the first five-sixths, this is an absolutely brilliant story. Just forget to read the end.

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