Lloyd Jones: Mr. Pip (2006)

Reading opens up new worlds, as an old phrase goes. Not only as a way of escapism, but if reading a fictional novel manages to raise up curiosity to know more about the factual world, and it even makes the reader to start looking up the historical or geographical facts behind the story, the book manages to be more than just a random piece of entertainment. Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr. Pip is a serious work of art and teaches, at least for yours truly, something from the history of few islands of the Pacific Ocean, namely from Papua-New-Guinea and Bougainville.

The focus of the book lies on the character of Mr. Watts, also known as Mr. Pip, who is an only white man inhabiting the island Bougainville. The events occur in the late 1980´s or in the early 1990´s. He gets the full attention of other people as, in the midst of a war that is lurking behind the corner, he decides to open a shut-down school and start teaching again for the children. We learn about his special kind of behavior through the eyes of one of his pupil’s, a girl named Matilda. Matilda and other children get to know the classic story by Dickens, when his novel “Great Expectations” is being read aloud in the class room. The main character in this classic is known by the name Pip.

The violence in the book is pretty bad, so the book cannot be recommended for the faint-hearted. The war between soldiers and rebels start to come closer to the islanders, and eventually pass the island with its destroying effect. The glance at the history of Bougainville gives us some explanation for this situation: the influence of the mining in the era caused some uncertainties. “Bougainville Copper Limited was an Australian copper, gold and silver mining company that operated the Panguna open cut mine on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) from 1971 to 1989. Mining operations were officially halted in 1989, when employees were attacked during an uprising and the power source was cut. Australian colonial government was said to treat the employees unfairly, and Bougainvillean people were seen to ‘get nothing’ ”. * Along with these circumstances, the events of the book are accelerated.

Matilda’s story in the book is touching and quite cruel. Despite her young age, she does not have time or place to ponder over things that teenagers of her age normally would think about; the maturing, the sexual awakening, her education.  Under these special circumstances her attention is drawn more into the adult’s world, politics under the colonial power and the absence of her long lost father. She struggles through her young life with Dickens’s book as her guiding light, and she tackles with questions like ’what does it mean to have a “heroic character”’ or ’how can one come over physical and mental obstacles, and come terms with the injustice of the world?´.

“Mr. Pip” has also been made into a film. It will be interesting to see whether the film version will live up to the book version.

This book was the final one for the readings of the book club and closed the spring term of 2017. The theme for the season was New Zealand, so therefore this book did not “hit directly the target” yet the author originates from NZ. However, this book reminded us Australia and New Zealand are far from being monolithic federations. There are numerous cultures and languages that exist in Down Under.

*) quoted from Wikipedia: Bougainville Copper

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Cover photo: Librarything.com

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Keri Hulme: The Bone People (1984)

The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985 and for its own part, raised the awareness of the existence of Maori culture outside the borders of New Zealand. Furthermore, a film called Once were warriors made a worldwide breakthrough in the 1990’s and brought even more social awareness to this minority that has suffered from the lack of basic human rights for ages.

Maoris are indigenous people of the island of New Zealand. It is known that first maoris of the island arrived to the island by long canoes from Polynesia around the 14th Century. As the Europeans started to conquer the island through Colonialism, Maorian tribes were mistreated and the population of the maoris started to decrease. The cultural resurrection of the Maori heritage started to occur at some point in the 1960´s. E.g. the language of Maori people has been legalized and brought to the curriculum of the country´s schools relatively recently, in the 1980’s.

Keri Hulme participates in this process of revival through the contents of the book. She weaves the story  in her magical way by introducing maori words along the journey. The arrangement and relationship between her three main characters could be seen to reflect the past of the Maori tribes. The struggle of the existence has been an ongoing and fierce battle.

It is difficult to write about this book, as the story does not follow the conventional storyline and is some way “out of this world”.  The lives of the three characters are presented in a fragmented ways, but get their meanings in relation to each other. A woman, a man and a child have their own struggles to fight at, yet the caring and loving emotions seem to evolve between them. The connection of this three is unique and biased. Isolation is a big theme, and violent actions occur. It is not always easy for the reader to accept the actions and their consequences.

A relation to the nature can be sensed In the book, and symbols for Maorian culture is presented, such as the importance of art works & tattooes, and the respect to the past and magical stories. Keri Hulme made an important work through her writing, although the story would have not suffered from some further editing or simplification, in my opinion. One of our bookclubbers considered this to be the most outstanding book she has read for a while.

-Marika

Cover (Finnish version): Kirjasampo.fi

 

 

 

 

Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and other stories (1922)

Kathleen Mansfield Murry (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923) was a prominent short story writer who was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At the age of 19, Mansfield left New Zealand and settled in the United Kingdom, where she became a friend of modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1917 she was diagnosed with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, which led to her death at the age of 34. Despite her young age, she travelled and lived in various countries (England, Germany, France, Italy) and published short stories. She is a highly appreciated modernist, whose writings seem never get old, not even for a reader of today.

For the readers of the book club for this spring term, what could be a better introduction to the literature of New Zealand than the short story collection by Katherine Mansfield? We dwelled on the first two stories of the book – ”At the Bay” and ”the Garden Party”. The stories are set on the coastal area of New Zealand. The abundance of nature is described so passionately and the gallery of personalities of the stories is so vivid, that we interpreted these perhaps be based on her own life. At the Bay, the story concentrates on the events of one summer day. We come to learn that Mansfield’s subtle way of writing gives room for many kinds of interpretations. Maybe this was necessary in order to get texts published at that era. At the Bay we get to know a woman who does not fit in the social norms set by others and is thus despised. We learn that a motherhood can be far from being a loving relationship but it is a rather compulsory thing that is expected to be performed for the sake of reproduction purposes. Mansfield brings forth some taboos of that time and perhaps is among the forerunners to write about these subjects, as a continuation for the latter part of Victorian era, when patriarchal male supremacy was being questioned in the literature for the first time. In her stories, women are mostly content of living a life without a marital partner.

Class divisions are presented even in a more apparent way in the Garden party. It is a story about the afternoon of an upper class family, whose life seem to filled with roses and lilies and piano tunes. . . However, the innocence and the immunity of the family as an isolated part of the society is questioned by Laura, a young girl of the family. She observes her surroundings carefully and starts to question and break the invisible barriers that separate her family from the others. She begings to ”wake up”as a member of the society, so to speak.

We really liked the short stories we read and shared the observations of many details. Yet we were genuinely surprised by the fact how modern these themes still felt today. It is almost 100 years since Mansfield wrote her stories, and she seems to have reached something essential on the human existence and being, for the questions she deals with are still relevant questions to be asked in today’s society.

-Marika

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Cover: LibraryThing

Patrick White: Voss

A brief summary of the colonial past of Australia: The Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901. Prior to that, Australia had been taken over by British settlers gradually, an area after another. It is recorded that the first British ship to land on an Australian shore was  in 1770, and a remarkable landing occurred in 1788, when the ship landed with a load of British convicts – the punishments of these prisoners were turned into a settling of  the new territory, namely in Australia. This conquest of the new land was being executed at the expense of the evacuations of the aboriginals, who were forced to moved away from the Southern parts. The conflicts were inevitable (Source: Maailmalla – Afrikka ja Oseania, 2009, free translation). It is in this context where the story of Patrick White’s Voss start.

Patrick White, a winner for Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, is an Australian author who is considered amongst the great novelists of the twentieth century. Despite the literary honor, his name might be forgotten amongst the younger readers of today. He published short stories and plays, and altogether twelve novels, of which we read his work Voss, published in the late 1950’s.

Voss is described as a book of a man’s odyssey across the Australian landscape and a love story. Despite the appetising ingredients of the good story, our book club readers did not find the novel too tasty. The protagonists of the story, a German traveller/explorer called Voss and Laura Travelyan, a young and intelligent woman of higher class, are introduced almost right away, of which the reader is thankful for. We come to learn that there is a colonial governance system in power in the 1840´s. Voss gathers an expedition group around him and the journey for the search can begin. At this point, the reader is already a bit confused – where are they heading for, what are the relationships among the explorers, and why Laura and her cousin are SO upset when they see the ships leave the shore?

Whether it is necessary to hang on to the illogical details as these mentioned above, as a whole, this is probably one of the reasons why the reading of this book was such a challenge. The sentences are full of adjectives and constructed in complex ways – whether it is intentional from the author to convey the atmosphere of the 19th century or not, we just found it difficult and boring to follow the text. However, some biblical references and an exceptionally strong female character (Laura) were some features that the book club paid attention to.

Also, the fact that the ”love story”of the lovers was almost non-existent and thus non-credible, could exactly convey the liaisons of the past times – for just to ”imagine” your beloved was meaningful. What a disappointment, though, to witness this in White´s novel. Also, the story is a white man’s story that seems to leave the aboriginal experience into the shadows.

As a conclusion, book clubbers decided to recommend the book for readers, who want to challenge themselves and who suffer from insomnia – the book makes you fall asleep surprisingly fast. 🙂

-Marika

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Cover: Kirjasampo.fi

Brooke Davis: Lost & Found (2016)

The main character of “Lost & Found” is a 7-year-old Millie Bird. “What happens when you get to a heaven?” is a question that haunts her, especially after her dog has died. In her red wellington boots, Millie is a cute girl whose thoughts give a reader some bittersweet and heart-breaking moments. Millie keeps the record of dead things around her: dead things, for example spider, bird, grandma are marked on her note book. Child’s perspective on the concept of “death” is felt in a direct way.

The grief. How to deal with the feeling of having lost some dear person? Is there a wrong or right way of going through the grievance? And how to continue your life, how to move on after some important part of your life has vanished? These are the questions that arise as more characters in Davis’ story are introduced: Karl, an elderly man with the special feature of “touch typing” his sentences, and Agatha Pantha, an elderly woman who has not left her house for seven years.  They both have lost someone they loved, and they are in the process of dealing with their repressed emotions. They do have their own peculiar habits (Karl carrying a mannequin, Agatha’s random shouts), yet these features make their stories even more interesting to follow. And everyone has a one thing in common: how to find Millie’s mom who has disappeared? The humour of Brooke Davis manages to be very sharp and witty in this debut novel of hers, and gives a promising start for her future writing career.

Australian literature is a theme for our book circle for this fall, and to start with a book by Davis was not a bad choice. However, even though the events take place on the Western coast of Australia, they could have happened in any other geographical location as well. Australian features are scarcely recognized: Kalgoorlie is a place to be found on the map, in contrast to Warwickvale which seems to be more of an imaginary place. At least, the author has undoubtedly named her somewhat annoying lady character Agatha Pantha after Agapanthus, a plant that is classified as a weed in many parts of Australia. We also recognized a special kind of biscuit, Anzac cookies, mentioned. This Australian biscuit is a reminder of the war history, namely of the times of 1WW, when Australia, together with New Zealand as Allied forces were fighting against the Osmanians; Anzac biscuits were popular comfort food sent from the home fronts.

Lost & Found loses its intensity towards the end of the story, and most of us felt that the beginning was more promising. We felt like losing the grip on this girl who, along the story, started to vanish more into the background. We simply would have liked to learn more about her. If you have read a book called “The Shock of the Fall” by Nathan Filer, and you liked the approach of the serious matters with lighter touch, and the plot that is constructed with small fragments and flashbacks, this book could be something for you.

-Marika

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Cover: LibraryThing

André Brink: Philida (2012)

We had a special luck with the choosing of our last book for the spring term, as it was chosen by one of our book club members, who happened to live in the South Africa for several years. The works of André Brink are familiar to her, and she chose the book from his latest production, namely Philida (published in 2012, Brink himself died three years later). We were very happy to be reading him, as everybody knows him by the name, but we did not remember reading anything from him. André Brink and apartheid, yes, he was always the spokesperson against apartheid and brought the injustices of the society into sight through his writing. We came to learn that originally the author wrote in Africaans, but as the government abolished one of his books in the early 1970’s, he begun also writing in English and his texts become more known worldwide.

Philida is a story set near Cape Town, in 1832, the time when South Africa was on the verge of abolishing the slavery. The slave protector of a small town Stellenbosch gets a visit by Philida, a young slave woman who wants to make a complaint against her owner and the son of his. The complaint concerns the fact that Frans Baas did not buy her freedom although had promised. Instead, she will now be sold on auction to the upcountry.

”Here come shit. Just one look, and I can see it coming.” These ironic observations predict that we are reading the story of a woman who has strong wit and will power. Philida is determined to get justice for herself, even though she is well aware of the reality around her. The complaint needs to be done in English, instead of Africaans that is a language of common people.

Through Philida’s story we are reminded that slavery has been performed through many brutal ways. We also come to learn that there have been many different levels of slavery and slaves are treated differently by their masters. For example Chattel slavery is a specific servitude relationship where the slave is treated as the property of the owner, whereas domestic slaves work primarily in the house of the master but retain some freedom. In the story, Ma is an example of this – she is considered the part of the household. It is often a shock to find a reason for these kinds of arrangements.

We are also reminded that slavery has its root in colonial rule and their use of power over the place. This can be seen through words and the name of the places. Dutch names are part of the South African society, such as Oubaas, Ounooi, naai, riem, kierie. In the 19th century, the power was shifted to British Commonwealth.

The book is not the easiest book to read, due to the language and cruelties, but Brink spares the reader from the worst scenarios. Reader has high hopes on the survival of Philida, as she is a lovable person. Her ability to knit well and her care for the pet Kleinkat, become the symbol of her own independence.

The idea of slavery is an incomprehensible system to be explained or understood. The book is a great reminder of the system that was used in depriving the freedom of people and treating people as commodity of trading. There are still places in the world where slavery is practiced, said somebody. We were talking about the legacy of apartheid in South Africa of nowadays. How much of hatred and violence on the streets is there still left, how much echo of the past is still being heard, were the concerns that were left to our minds.

-Marika

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Cover: LibraryThing

Margaret Atwood: The Heart Goes Last (2015)

When talking about her recent works, such as Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood defines her stories of a genre of “speculative fiction”, instead of science fiction, to which her works are too often categorized. ”Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen”, as she is said to insist to the UK’s Guardian*.

Atwood´s recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, continues this tradition of “specfic”. As a story of a dystopic near-future, the story starts with an alarming scenario – a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, is like any other ordinary American couple, but what puts them in a difficult position is that they have lost their jobs and their housing, and are forced to live in their car. Which, of course, is far from an easy way of living. As a hope for the better future, they become involved with a new kind of experimentation, Positron project, where they are promised a good-quality housing in an isolated area. But naturally there is a condition to that … every month spent in their new and comfortable house needs to be compensated with a month spent in a prison and with charity work for this community.

The setting for the story is not too unordinary. However, things start going more unpredictable, when Charmaine realizes that their home is inhabited by a certain couple, with whom she accidentally bumps into when they are shifting their turns at change of the month. This brings challenge to the stability of their lives. Nothing is the same anymore, especially as they realise that there is no turning back to their previous lives.

The readers of the book circle were pleased to read this piece of writing from Atwood. Atwood’s story makes references to different themes and touches upon the questionable phenomena of the future, such as organ selling, alternative substitutes for pleasures and nurture (in the forms of robots), alternative ways of living, clones, etc. Yet, it was interesting to see that the dystopic society that Atwood creates in her story is not a gloomy one on the surface, but resembles more of the atmosphere of the 1950´s America we have been offered through the popular culture. We seem to think that this time period was filled with more naivety and innocence than today, and these characteristics are portrayed in the behaviour of the protagonists.

Or maybe it is just Atwood’s way of maintaining the humorous tone in her writing. However, under the surface, we can feel the striking resemblances to more serious issues, for example to the organized system of nazi regime….

* (If you are more interested in the subject: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia)

-Marika

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Cover: LibraryThing