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

Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

The debut novel of a British author, Jeanette Winterson, was released 30 years ago. The novel raised a lot of attention in those days and was made into a mini-series on BBC in 1989. Some lesbian scenes were probably raising some attention at that time. However, nowadays, there is not much of a shock value in same-gender love affairs – yet, what feels striking is the narrow-minded and strict view on life seen through the eyes of a religious community or sect.

Winterson´s book is based on her real life. She was adopted to a religious family and the story of the book concentrates on her childhood/teenage years in a small town in Mid-England. The controlling mother figure casts her shadow on Jeanette’s life: she needs to learn the facts from Bible by heart and thus strive to live an impeccable life. Home-schooling changes suddenly into a regular life in a public school, and this gives a lot of challenges to a young girl, whose originality leaves her as an outcast in a social environment. The support from the religious circles is all she has. Taking part of the sermons and looking for new members for the community forms the basis for her life; until she finds to fall in love with another girl. This puts her on a position that her mom & community does not accept – her leading to astray can only be healed through exorcism.

The Oranges are not the Only Fruit is a book about the struggle of finding one’s identity and giving a voice to a girl who refuses to be controlled. Yet at the same time, it shows the struggles of girl whose life is torn into different directions and wants to stay true to… what exactly?  Winterson´s book gives insight to a religious life that is heavily condemning the others, the outsiders and the unknown that is considered to threaten the predetermined Bible-based reality. Our book club found the book a little bit outdated in some parts, yet many allegories and small details of the story were seen as truly precious.

Jeanette Winterson has released many books since her debut – the story of her life continues in a book called Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (publ. 2011).

-Marika

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