A teacher on an island

2008-10-02 08:05

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' prize and shortlisted for the Booker, Mister Pip comes with a wealth of expectation.

At first glance, the novel is deceptively simple. Set on an island in Papua New Guinea during the civil war of the nineties, it concerns a remote community, made more isolated by the fighting. The only white man left, Mr Watts, takes over the school. A reclusive figure, with a local but remote wife, he is no teacher. What he does is read Charles Dickens's Great Expectations to the class, introducing them to a world far, far removed from their own. And they, particularly the narrator, Matilda, become absorbed by Pip and his life.

But just as the reader begins to wonder whether this is some kind of retro colonial plot - white man coming in with Western culture to improve the lot of the unfortunate natives - it becomes clear that Jones's project is much more subtle. In a world torn apart by fighting, where “redskins” (the government troops) and rebels come out of the forest to destroy and kill indiscriminately, certainties are vanishing. Young men disappear, off to join the fighters, and life gets harder and harder for those left behind. Not everyone approves of Mr Watts's teaching methods; Matilda's formidable mother is his main critic. But he is giving the children a glimpse of possibilities and something to occupy their minds.

Pip is a dubious role model in many ways, just as is Mr Watts, and both are going to cause considerable suffering on the island before the war is done, but they offer the audience - or at least the receptive part of it - a life-enhancing, and in Matilda's case, ultimately a life-changing experience.

Mister Pip is a book of both warmth and sadness, tenderness and brutality. It also celebrates the power of literature, and it does more than that. I will be surprised if it wins the Booker when the announcement is made next week - it is up against some tough and literary establishment opposition, but it is a novel that is fully deserving of its somewhat unexpected success.

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