Every year I participate in the Barnes and Noble Gift Wrap for charity. And every year I get about ten new book ideas and recommendations. Two years ago it was Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – you can listen to the BCB podcast here. Last year I only had two shifts and didn’t talk to anyone at length about what they were reading. This year, I spoke with an older woman – a bookstore favorite of mine. She has longer grey hair, glasses, always has a pen and some Kleenex and she is probably into pottery or owns a loom she brought back from Paraguay. I know you know the type. This year, she recommended Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. She said, I’ve been in a bookclub for over twenty years and this book provided us with our best, most meaningful discussion, ever. I was sold. It was the first book I read in 2010.
Mister Pip is the story of thirteen-year old Matilda and her small village on a tropical island. Due to tribal/civil war most of the village has left, most of the boys have gone to war. Children roam with stray dogs with no school or teachers until one man steps up and decides to open the school again. This man happens to be the only white guy in the village, and the only thing he has to teach is a battered copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. What is so lovely about Mister Pip is that you don’t need to have previous experience with Dickens or Great Expectations. Part of the charm of Mr. Jones’s book is that Matilda discovers Pip’s story along with the reader. Having no experience with Charles Dickens myself, this was a huge relief. As a common reader, you shouldn’t have to read one book to enjoy another.
In Mister Pip, Jones gives us a great example of basing a novel on a previous classic and having his work stand on its own merit (without zombies or sea-monsters). At the core of Mister Pip is inspiration and imagination, and ultimately the dangers of both. Mr. Watts is the lone white man of the village who reopens the school. As he begins to read Great Expectations he expands the understanding and imagination of the few island kids who attend his school. Among the blossoming minds is young Matilda – who takes Mr. Watts and Pip into her heart and soul. She is so desperate for knowledge, love, and inspiration and she connects so deeply with Pip, that she builds a shrine to Pip on the beach – spelling his name with shells and stones. When rebels enter the village they discover the shrine and demand to know who this “Pip” is. In a grand and noble misunderstanding terror and tragedy ensue. Very few books surprise me, but there comes a moment in Mister Pip that literally made me cry out. In retrospect, I knew it was coming. It can happen no other way. Yet I was still surprised and heart-broken when it happened. That kind of writing and storytelling is very special. If you’ve never read Dickens or Great Expectations, or if you have and loved it or hated it; Mister Pip does not alienate any reader. Jones’s writing is splendid. This book is a beautiful tragedy.