The narrator of Mister Pip is Matilda, a young girl growing up on an island in the south Pacific. As the story unfolds it becomes gradually more apparent that this island is in the grip of a brutal war. Matilda is deflected from the impact of the threatening violence by her fascination with Mr. Watts the only white man on the island and the person who has the task of teaching the island’s children. His only text is Great Expectations and he manages to cast a strange spell over the children and their parents using Dickens’s story in various ways. The book has the quality of a fantasy where the characters achieve moments of liberation through storytelling. The central character Matilda asserts, “stories can help you find happiness and truth.” This belief is borne out as the story unfolds and Matilda triumphs in spite of horrendous suffering.
I found the character of Matilda’s mother to be the most convincing. She makes an amazing journey from religious fundamentalism to heartbreaking heroism culminating in the perfect climactic line; “I am here as God’s witness.” The whole book is a witness to the power of fiction; Matilda claims that Great Expectations is the “one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed.” As I read it I came to accept that this could be true and that Mister Pip might very well turn out to be a classic piece of fiction that stands the test of time. If there is a flaw it is in the last twenty pages which deal with Matilda’s life outside her island home. The adult Matilda is not as convincing as the child narrator who observes the wonderful and strange things that happen in Mr Watts’ classroom. It is nevertheless a delightful and searing book which might well send you back to Dickens as a kind of bonus.