Friday, December 14, 2007

Quick-and-dirty book review -- Mister Pip

For weeks and weeks now, I've had both Dickens' Great Expectations and Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip stacked by my monitor as a reminder to quickly summarize, for my blog, my response to the latter. And since one of my winter-break tasks is to get my desk cleared off a bit, I'm going to go for the quick-and-dirty so that I can get the books back on the shelves and recover some 30 or 40 square inches.
Great Expectations, of course, needs no reviewing by me, but I will say again that it's a compelling read, a book I could confidently assign to my first-years knowing that once they got past the grumbles of dealing with dated language, denser syntax, etc., they couldn't help but be caught up by the narrative. It's not necessary to have read this in order to engage with Mister Pip, but by perhaps the fourth chapter I decided I'd like that background to be better able to evaluate and appreciate the narrator Matilda's response to the Dickens story. If I were to teach Mister Pip in future, I'd do so in tandem with GE and I'd direct the students to consider the respective politico-socio-economic conditions of the two narrators and the work the writers do to bring these conditions to the attention of a national and/or global community that doesn't know or care about such conditions. Does that already sound too tedious? Perhaps, but I think it's an important parallel given how little I knew about Bougainville and the traumas experienced and witnessed by its people, children particularly.
I'd also link the two novels' concern with the effects of colonialism, despite a difference of almost 150 years. The colonial exploitation that led to Bougainville's traumas is described at several websites, Solidarity South Pacific for example. As well, children's drawings of the war can be seen here.
To write a decent review, I'd need to go back and re-read the novel, and I just don't have time for that. Quickly, though, I will say that I was struck from the opening by the narrator's tone. I've seen other reviews that refer to the narrator as a child, but I think it's important to emphasize that this is not, indeed, the case. The narrator is clearly looking back, from early adulthood, on a time of her childhood charged with the transition to adolescence, the drama of war, and the wonderment of new knowledge, the transformative possibilities of the imagination. While she is clearly engaged with the possibilities of storytelling and, especially, the riches of interpretation, her voice nevertheless reflects, in a certain curious detachment or flatness or some affect I can't quite pin down, the harrowing experience she eventually reveals, an experience that weighs on each page until the reader is finally knocked down by it perhaps two-thirds of the way through the novel.
Many reviewers focus on the redemptive quality of the narrative's emphasis on storytelling and the imagination. Yes. I suppose. It's uplifting to think of the young narrator picking up the pen to carry on that tradition. Still, by the time I finished the novel, I couldn't help wondering how many days she wouldn't have the strength.
A student from one of my past 4th-year Canadian fiction classes e-mailed me the other day to ask if I'd recommend novels to get her through several weeks of mandated bedrest (pregnancy--now there's a great expectation!). Although this deceptively small, simple-appearing novel is harrowing in its core content, its story of the "unaccommodated child" (a child's exposure being, arguably, even more difficult to witness, than Lear's), it offers enough pleasures and, yes, I'll concede, enough redemptive possibilities that I will add this to my list of recommendations. Certainly, I plan to read it again myself.

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