Mister Pip arrives after a torrent of publicity: the book earned its author the title of New Zealand's first million-dollar novelist. Mister Pip has been the subject of a bidding war between rival publishers in the US, Britain and Europe. Lucky Mr Jones. And the novel does deserve all the hype and attention that has been paid to it.
It's the story of 11-year-old Matilda Laimo from Bougainville, and it's about how her life unfolds during Papua New Guinea's brutal and bloody civil war of the early 1990s. Her father having emigrated to Townsville, Australia, in search of work in a mine, Matilda relies on her fanatically religious mother, Dolores, and her elderly teacher, Tom Watts, for solace and support. Bougainville's sole white occupant, Tom knows what it means to be deserted, too; only for him, he's the one who did the deserting, abandoning his New Zealand wife to shack up with his neighbour, Grace, on her island homeland. While Dolores seeks succour in the Bible, Tom's sanctuary is Charles Dickens' work and characters, particularly Great Expectations and its hero, Pip. At its core, then, Mister Pip is a book about faith or rather, conflicting faiths. The genteel battle Dolores and Tom wage over Matilda's young mind is set against the violent conflict fought by the two sides in the civil war. It's a clever and intricate contrast that's the more admirable for Jones' gentle revelations; he never grandstands the complex issues at the heart of the book, never wallows in overt moralising, and allows his characters unexpectedly to show their real motivations.
This doesn't stop Mister Pip from being, at times, a deeply shocking read. Jones offers us the full breadth of depravity - torture, slaughter, rape - of the warfare in Papua New Guinea while the world averts its eyes. Initially, we come away from its harrowing and sadistic incidents thankful, perhaps, that we live in different and better times. Then we remember Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we realise that the vicious inhumanity that Mister Pip so graphically portrays has the power to speak to us of today's horrors.
- HERALD ON SUNDAY