Bite It above the Eyes

Susan Eilenberg

  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
    Murray, 223 pp, £12.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7195 6456 7

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them . . . my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

A book about the delights and healing effects of reading, recalling the novels about precocious readers and intellectual explorers that many of us grew up with, South Pacific cousin to Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and innumerable similar childhood favourites: this is the last place one would expect to encounter a jealous quarrel about the nature of referentiality.

On the actual island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, blockaded during a verifiable civil war in the historically real early 1990s (when, as our protagonist tells it, ‘Francis Ona and his rebels declared war on the copper mine and the company, which in some way that I didn’t understand at the time, brought the redskin soldiers from Port Moresby to our island’), a character named Mr Watts (though known in mockery of his eccentricities as ‘Pop Eye’) begins to read Great Expectations (or something that passes for Great Expectations) aloud. His audience consists of the black children of the island, whose schoolmasters, together with the rest of the white population, have fled. The children’s parents hope that Pop Eye’s version of school might distract the children from the rumours of atrocities committed by the redskin soldiers (‘redskin’ because the ‘soldiers looked like people leached up out of the red earth’) against the rebels and any community they suspect of rebel sympathies. They want distraction for their children; they are not sure they want cultural disloyalty for them or escape, possibilities which Great Expectations both narrates and embodies. The children nonetheless find themselves drawn to the story, discover that they can ‘slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own, even when that skin is white and belongs to a boy alive in Dickens’s England’, and begin to think of Pip as of a friend as real or realler than their parents or uncles or aunts. One of the mothers finds this intolerable. She attacks the Victorian story and its reader for undermining what she understands to be the allegiance her child owes her. The child herself survives the catastrophe that follows to record here her witness and that of her mother.

The mother is Dolores Laimo, who ‘when she was thinking . . . tended to look angry, as if the act of thinking was potentially ruinous, even ending in her humiliation’. Dolores’s anger, always quick, has been strong since her husband left her to work in Australia two years before. ‘I didn’t know if I was looking at a bad man or a man who loved me,’ she says of him. In her eyes all other values are subordinate to loyalty; her moral categories are in effect categories of allegiance and control. The military blockade is the official reason her husband has never returned, but weariness with his wife’s emotional violence may be the reason behind the official one.

Thirteen-year-old Matilda, Dolores’s daughter, has her mother’s intelligence without her frightening aggressiveness. Quick and sympathetic, she is the one who notes that it is ‘those dogs and chickens that had names’ that take refuge with their owners in the jungle when the redskins’ helicopters first appear ‘like giant dragonflies’ hovering over the village. From the beginning she thinks of herself as an orphan and so feels an instant identification with Pip. The novel opens a whole new world for her, its characters ‘more part of my life than my dead relatives, even the people around me’. She practises interpreting the people around her as if they were the characters she has come to know, reading her mother as Mrs Joe at first, and then Estella, and at last as Joe Gargery or even Magwitch. But by the time she has revised her understanding of her mother she has learned that she is not the only Pip on the island and that some who appear to be Pips may turn out to be Jaggerses or Joes as well. She writes Pip’s name in the sand and decorates it with heart seeds.

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