There are those people for each of us, acknowledged or not, whose influence runs so deeply and purely that we strive to become a bit of whom they are. That’s a bad sentence, but it’s late and I’m having trouble hammering out thoughts on this novel without getting too close to an emotional precipice that I don’t want to fall over. Mister Pip, a Booker shortlisted novel from 2007, reads easily and, at a cursory glance, simplistically. It is the story, told in hindsight, of thirteen year old Matilda and her magical teacher, Mr. Watts, who lights a fire of sympatico appreciation within her. The conduit for their connection is of course, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
And thus a literature lover is born. At its very heart, perhaps this is what I should take from Mister Pip. Stories- those lovers and tellers and enrapturers in all their shapes and sizes, tricks and guises- are the tie which binds Matilda and Mr. Watts, but for me, the real story is the unleashing of Matilda’s powers at the beckoning of Pip. Powers of empathy, thought, recall, identification, and assertion are new for Matilda, as they are for anyone who suddenly discovers that their ordinary world is replete with characters made known through fiction. For those who have their inner fires stirred and who are, each day, newly awash in means with which to navigate human interaction, the bringer of those passions is a genie who has allowed his lamp to be rubbed for an infinite number of wishes. I’ve been fortunate to have an experience of this sort, a connection with someone which found my plumb line, lit me, and sent me on a journey that won’t end until I do.
Matilda tells her tale in a voice that is removed and clear, in order to convey an experience that has formed her private core and has given her life its very definition. The essence of that experience lies within a time of chaos for Matilda, a resident of Bougainville Island during an armed conflict that surrounds her with tension and uncertainty. Into this setting rides Mr. Dickens’ masterpiece, and Pip’s clear cadence is honored by Lloyd Jones in the voice of Matilda. The setting and peripheral characters could be anyplace, but the story would be the same. Call it redemption through literature. Call it transformation. Call it anything but anodyne or simple for there are as many layers to be found in Mister Pip as there are in Great Expectations. And just as many within each of us who look. It all begins with a book.