Tuesday 16 October 2007

Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones

Was there ever a book written so intently with a literary prize in mind? New Zealander Lloyd Jones, having achieved significant cult success outside the UK, arrives in the British publishing world with a book which has understandably been made favourite to win the Booker.

So, let’s run through the checklist. The story is set on a Pacific Island largely untouched by Western civilisation (they don’t even know what a car is!). It is a narrated by a child on the cusp of puberty. It contains a white man who is neither wholly good or wholly bad but human (how post-mo-co!). The girl’s mother is a simple loving soul consumed by a zealous Christian impulse gained from the island’s only book, a pidgin Bible (don’t y’all forget how bad colonialism was though).

There’s a brutal civil war going on which no-one on the island understands, and the narrator can’t tell the difference between the fighters (war is bad, nasty things happen, and oh so futile). Her imagination is sparked and she is bonded to the white man by his teaching of his single copy of Great Expectations (as I was saying to Ffionah in my book group only last week, doesn’t it remind you of the excitement you first felt when learning to read and the Transformative Power of Literature?). The island folk are suspicious of the white man teaching their children to read (children are innocent, adults are cynical, adults who read good books are lovely). Through the events of the book the narrator comes to a greater understanding of the familial bond (simple folk don’t half love their mums). Civilisation isn’t too bad after all because people don’t get chopped up and fed to pigs on a regular basis, but you must remember your roots but also read good books (like you, reader). Oh, and it’s all based on real events which you hadn’t heard of but I have because I Googled them earlier and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves you Eurocentric scum.

At 219 pages there isn’t really much scope to go beyond is, once we’ve covered a few wobbly moments down below that results from puberty combined with the Transformative Power of Literature (TPL) and people being unpleasant to each other. Mister Pip does what it does pleasantly enough and no-one said Booker prize nominees had to be dense, eye-ball slicing doorstops. But it never really moves beyond a very basic skeleton of a story (ironic, given the source material) and falls into that strange genre-less field mined (successfully) by the likes of Mark Haddon, of being too grown-up for children and too slight for adults. Young Adult I suppose, although most Young Adults interested in the TPL are busy reading Dickens and Austen and those who don’t are out binge-drinking on street corners having just watched Transformers to read this.

Someone recently told me that he had put ten pounds on Mister Pip at the bookies without having read it. Lacking the clever inter-textuality of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the literature-as-inspiration qualities of Keats’ ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ or even the literary romp value of Jasper Fforde, it seems as productive a use of the money as spending it on this, or taking the time to read it.


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