It is overall average and I can't say it's made a memorable impression on me, a couple of weeks after reading and I'm having to struggle to remember the details.
The Plot: Matilda is a young girl living in Bougainville, during the island's struggle for independence. Civil war and the blockade have drastic consequences for Matilda and her classmates, their education is disrupted until Mr Watts becomes the self-appointed teacher of their tiny school. Mr Watts is the last remaining white man, he was previously mocked for his eccentric appearance and behaviour, but the students begin to appreciate his efforts as he teaches them the best he can using the only textbook they have - Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
I'd never heard of Bouganville before, and thought that the it was perhaps a fictional place, but I was wrong, Bouganville is an autonomous region in Papa New Guinea. It has a turbulent history, and has been invaded and occupied by the Germans, British, Japanese, Australians and Americans and various points. The island is rich in both copper and gold and these natural resources and the indigenous population have been exploited repeatedly by foreign powers. The BRA (Bouganville Revolutionary Army) was a separatist movement that wanted independence from Papa New Guinea, this lead to civil war in the 1990s. According to Wiki, the conflict claimed 15,000- 20,000 lives.
So full marks to Lloyd Jones for bringing this to my attention and many others, because I was completely ignorant about the country.
As the narrator of Mister Pip is a child, the civil war is told from a childlike perspective. This means that the scale of war and the causes and consequences are not made clear. I had to google the history of Bouganville to gain a better understanding. The events of the conflict can be inferred, for example Matilda talks about young men leaving the village, and the reader is left to assume they are leaving to join to the fighting, or leaving to try and avoid it.
The narration is effective in other ways, the lasting trauma of experiencing warfare and how it affect everyday lives and ordinary people has great clarity. The idea of only having one textbook in the school, is humorous but also dreadful when you stop and think about it, as accessing education is so important when developing the Islands future economic and social prospects.
Matilda and her mother are engaging and bright characters, who I really warmed to. There is a lot of honesty about their relationship, and there is a part towards the end that had me tearing up.
Mr Watts on the other hand really irritated me. In novel about the Bouganville civil war it rubbed me the wrong way to have a white man as a central character, especially as the 'hero'. Its kind of like the author thought people won't care about the novel unless there was a white face to root for. At least Mr Watts wasn't the narrator I suppose- that would have really made the rating drop for me.
Also, the whole thing about Mr Watts wearing a clown nose and pulling his wife around on a cart was just ridiculous, I wasn't charmed and wasn't interested in what the backstory was about this. The character of Mr Watts felt a little self-indulgent by author. Plus, I thought he was a rather selfish man to be honest, he had piles of books at home but only shared a singular Charles Dickens book with the kids (I bloody hate Charles Dickens as well).
Mister Pip isn't a terrible book or anything. It is diverting, the narrator is appealing and it is educational about Bouganville. It does have flaws however, and I doubt it'll be a book I'll pick up and read again.