Mister Pip is a haunting New Zealand book by Lloyd Jones that's being pipped (er, sorry) to win the prestigious Booker Prize next month. It's a brief but lingering read, a kind of combination of Dead Poets Society and Hotel Rwanda that pays homage to the mysterious power of storytelling.
Set on a remote New Guinea island during a time of violent revolution, it's the tale of village girl Matilda and the bond she forms with her eccentric schoolteacher, Mr. Watts, the last white man left on the island. With next to nothing in the way of resources, the ragged, exiled Mr Watts tries to teach the children by reading his way through a copy of Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations. But the novel becomes a startling focal point in the battles between the army and the rebels and Matilda's entire world is drawn into the fight. Matilda comes to identify with Dickens' prodigal orphan Pip, despite the pressures of the real world outside books.
The novel's biggest strength is how it undercuts dreamy reverie with startling bursts of real-life horror. Jones creates some finely drawn characters in his direct, toned prose, and he mostly manages to avoid the cliches inherent in the whole "kindly white gent educates the natives" plot. Jones genuinely probes at the clash between "native" and "white man" culture, and comes to interesting conclusions about it all. He makes Mr Watts a haunted, flawed figure, particularly in a brilliant final act in the novel in which Matilda goes in search of the truth.
Given the choice between a life of war and torture and one of fiction, which would you choose? Mister Pip is a fine book and I certainly wouldn't be upset if it took home a big international honor on behalf of Kiwi lit.