Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Authorial Voice in 'Mr Pip'

Lloyd Jones, author of Mr Pip (2006), has written 14 books since 1991, including novels and children’s stories. In that time frame, he has either been short-listed for or won a dozen or so national book awards, including at least one children’s book award. The latter implies that Jones is adept at knowing how to ‘speak’ to children, which brings us to the question of the authorial voice in Mr Pip: Jones chose a university graduate named Matilda recalling her life at age 14 onwards in a village in Bougainville cut off from the outside world by an encircling war.

Before discussing Matilda, let us backtrack for a moment to an essay called ‘The Godly Roof', which was written by R. A. Copland and first appeared in the New Zealand periodical Landfall in 1968. In the essay Copland discusses the authorial voice in literature, particularly that of Frank Sargeson. For Copland, authors continually battle with what level of intelligence to give their characters without it seeming forced. If we apply that statement to Emma Neale’s 2006 novel Relative Strangers, it was not a huge jump for Neale – who holds a PhD on expatriate New Zealand women writers – to speak in the voice of the protagonist Chloe, who also has an enquiring mind and is continually taking night courses to keep herself intellectually stimulated. Likewise in the 1987 novel Dirty Work written by Nigel Cox, the protagonist Gina Tully is a middle class girl with a college education, so it is not a huge jump for Cox to emulate Tully’s voice, however, crossing the gender divide to speak as a ‘postmodern Ms’ no doubt was. 

In short, both the above authors and their protagonists are almost like us. In contrast, Copland writes that Sargeson wrote with his left hand (not literally) to achieve the realism of his characters, so distanced were they from his intellect.

So how does Copland’s discussion about what level of intelligence to give a book’s character transfer to Mr Pip? At age 14, Matilda is at a very convenient and versatile age as a protagonist. She is old enough to comprehend what the adults in the village talk about and has access to the world of children through her classmates. Yet she is still exposed to the violence of war, as can be seen in the segment where her mother sacrifices herself to save Matilda from being raped. But why did Jones choose a female voice? One answer is that if the narrator had been a male from the same age group, he would have been preoccupied with whether he should join the rebels, as other boys around his age had done, or whether he would eventually be forced to. In short, the male world and the war would have overridden the narrative. So by having a young woman as narrator, Mr Pip keeps the narrative out in the open, within the village dynamics, not hidden in the jungle with the fighters. Plus, for much of the time during the book, the narrator appears to be either absorbed in a literary world, or in shock after experiencing close at hand the horrors of war, a condition that in the real world creates a sort of tunnel vision. Both devices are handy veils if the author is not quite knowledgeable about a lived reality.

Finally, in keeping with his previous books targeting children, to some extent Jones is using a author's device that has worked for him before. In 2004 he wrote Everything You Need to Know About the World by Simon Eliot. The book was a finalist in the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children. In the book a narrator named Simon Eliot creates a worldview for children in the 9-14 years age group. Sound familiar? The upper level of the target age group is the same age as Matilda, the protagonist in Mr Pip. Jones is familiar with the dialogue of that age group.

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