Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book #8: Bougainville/Papua New Guinea

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Personally I wouldn’t class this as a young adult book, but I found it in a list of books for young adults and young adults can read it so I thought I’d include it. It’s also very good.

Mister Pip is the story of Matilda, a girl living on the island of Bougainville when it is blockaded by Papua New Guinea soldiers. For the first few months, there is no school – all the foreign teachers have left the island – and the kids are left to run wild. Matilda’s father left years before for Australia, and her strident, God-fearing mother is a difficult person to live with.

The eccentric Mr Watts, the ‘last white man on the island’, decides to hold school lessons, and introduces the class to Great Expectations. Everyone, but especially Matilda, is entranced by the characters of Pip and Miss Havisham and Magwitch, and by the evocation of nineteenth century England, a world away from their tropical island prison. Great Expectations is an escape from the tension of soldiers and rebels on the island, and Matilda becomes ever more immersed in Dickens’ world.

As the threads of the plot unravel, you begin to see how tightly Great Expectations is bound to the story. Matilda draws the story around her to protect herself from the atrocities of the civil war. Mr Watts takes on the guise of Pip and intertwines his own story with that of Dickens and those of the islanders until you are unsure where one leaves off and one begins. You see the fluidity of story and ‘truth’, and the fact that they can never really be separated from one another. History is always someone’s interpretation, and we have the power to rewrite our own histories, to cover ourselves with the history of others, if we want to.

Bougainville seems like paradise, at least in terms of nature. Matilda’s village is right on the beach, and despite the blockade they do not lack for food – Matilda says that the island is one of the most fertile places in the world, and there are always fish in the sea. The beauty of the setting contrasts strongly against the actions of the people, whether soldiers or villagers. When Matilda is transported to nineteenth century England through Dickens’ words, she is escaping not the place but the people.

The book is a lot more complex than I’ve described here, but I’m not sure how to say more without giving away the plot (and I HATE it when people do that). It left me thinking about subjectivity and the layers of story and half-truth that people surround themselves with. How can you know who a person is? How can you know who you are? And does it really matter if we never know the ‘real’ person?

Do you have any books set in Papua New Guinea that you like?

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