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Originally published August 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 17, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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"Mister Pip's" fictional escape exceeds reality's expectations

Like most readers of fiction, I find myself sometimes speaking of fictional characters as if they were real friends. Who is Scout Finch if not a dear childhood companion?

Special to The Seattle Times

Book review

"Mister Pip"

by Lloyd Jones

Dial, 256 pp., $20

Like most readers of fiction, I find myself sometimes speaking of fictional characters as if they were real friends. Who is Scout Finch if not a dear childhood companion? And Holden Caulfield, if not my first real crush?

That's because great literature allows us to slip into an alternative reality, to live vicariously with impossible courage, triumph and tragedy, and, best of all, to claim those experiences as our own, as real installments in the tapestry of our lives.

Lloyd Jones' new novel "Mister Pip," recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, lives in that marginal space where fiction and reality coalesce. From the vantage point of adulthood, Jones' guileless narrator and heroine, Matilda, shepherds us through her tumultuous childhood years on war-ravaged Bougainville (a now-autonomous province of Papua New Guinea that fought for its independence in the 1990s).

There, an eccentric intellectual, Mr. Watts — the only white man on the island — reads Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" aloud to the village kids each day, luring Matilda and her classmates into a fictional world far from their tropical hell.

Dickens' inimitable hero, the orphan Pip — he is always "Mister Pip" to Matilda and her friends — soon becomes a friend and, much to Matilda's Bible-thumping mother's chagrin, a savior of sorts. For Matilda, he is a symbol not of perfect courage or moral integrity but of transcendence.

Inevitably, the boundary between literature and Matilda's real life is obfuscated. When rebel soldiers invade her village and demand a census, a little boy lists Mister Pip among the village occupants. And when no one can produce Mister Pip in body, the rebels burn the village.

Hoping to save the town from further destruction, Watts comes forward as Mister Pip and, upon pain of rape, is ordered to explain himself. Watts agrees, under stipulation that he will need a week to tell his story, and that he must not be interrupted.

Thus, three-fourths of the way through Jones' novel, we are treated to a gorgeous amalgamation of storytelling: Fiction is layered on fiction as our now-grown narrator Matilda retells Watts' version of Pip's life, deftly interweaving Dickens' story (sometimes verbatim) with village mythology and Watts' own personal autobiography. Watts slips deftly into the role of an English Scheherazade, his prose sometimes Victorian, sometimes steeped in island vernacular, each night buying time for his, Matilda's and her mother's escape.

The climax comes as it must in a book set to the soundtrack of civil war: with rape and murder. The kindly Mr. Jaggers, from Dickens' novel, appears in the unlikeliest form, and all Dickens'/Jones' fictional worlds — Pip's and Matilda's childhood, Watts' past — merge into a quiet conclusion.

"Mister Pip" is not a perfect work of fiction, partly because Jones has an irritating tendency to explain the significance of his own work. (Matilda, in the novel's final chapter, declares that "Great Expectations" taught her that "you 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' England.")

Nonetheless, it's a great read and Lloyd is a masterful puppeteer. His characters, both original and borrowed, dance believably, luring us into their realities. Both Matilda and Watts will take their rightful places, beside Pip, in my canon of fictional friends.

Haley Edwards is a Seattle Times features writer.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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