Posts Tagged ‘GCSE’

Many things about being a teacher vex me: longer hours than the public realise, pay, governmental meddling. Paperwork. Ofsted. As a teacher of English though, the lack of imagination in exam boards’ choices for set texts is pretty high on the vexing-list. Really, Of Mice And Men, again? An Inspector Calls as modern drama? Don’t get me wrong, both are great books. But there is an embarrassment when parents point out they read the same book in their generation. As did some grandparents!

So, for me, I avoid the familiar and, if I can, try to teach at least one fresh book a year. Last year, it was The Woman In Black by Susan Hill; this year, Mister Pip. Admittedly, it’s not completely “fresh”: I’d read it when it was nominated for the Man Booker in 2007. But it has stayed with me, the child’s voice of the narrator, the somehow ephemeral Mister Watts. The island.

Mister Pip Is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Near Australia. Now, going back to exam text lists, that is a different culture. 1930s America in contrast seems altogether too familiar! Lloyd Jones, literally, takes us to the other side of the world.

2015/01/img_6581-0.png And this island is gorgeous! Do a quick Google image search. You’ll find images like these.


And in the middle of the island – the heart of the island – is a vast ugly scar of a copper mine.

The copper mine and its white owners became the subject of criticism, strikes and eventually rebellion in the 1990s and it is into that conflict which Jones plunges us.


We only see the conflict (and indeed the island) through the prism of Matilda’s eyes, a young girl in a village around which threat of the civil war rages. We only see the conflict as it touches on the villagers’ lives: the embargo which means they run out of fuel for generators; the exodus of whites which leads to the closure of the village school; occasional helicopters and gunfire in the jungle; visits by both the rebels and the redskin troops trying to eliminate them. The conflict circles the village, eddies around it, and becomes increasingly threatening until the truly horrific atrocities committed in the final chapters. All the more brutal for the simplicity and directness of the narration.

The war, however, is but a backdrop to the novel: the heart of this novel is the character of Mister Watt, the last white man on the island who declined his opportunity to leave it. Who re-opened the school after the blockade. Who read Dickens’ Great Expectations to a schoolroom of teenage kids. Who wheels his wife around the village on a cart, whilst wearing a red clown nose. Who may be an heroic or a sympathetic or a pathetic character. Or all three. Who clashes with Dolores, Matilda’s mother, about, well, everything!

There is some criticism of the book on Goodreads that Mr Watts is painted as the great white hero, using the great white novel, to save the souls of the helpless aboriginal children. People are uncomfortable that there’s a colonial arrogance in the portrayal of Mr Watts. Perhaps we are meant to be uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the value of the bible versus Great Expectations, both of which symbolise the white colonial presence is intended. Maybe we as white readers are complicit in the ills which befall the inhabitants of this island.

But those criticisms, in my view, miss the point almost entirely. It’s not the fact the it’s Great Expectations that saves the children, it is the power of story. Including the stories, folk tales and jungle knowledge of the villagers. Mr Watts’ final seven day performance to the rebels of his story which stitches elements of fantasy, his own autobiography. Great Expectations and local stories is the absurd, touching, bright gem.

Mr Watts is no imperial or colonial hero: he is an actor who only succeeds in his various roles because his audience has the capacity and imagination to permit him to succeed.

And Lloyd Jones prepares and preempts the final twist to Mr Watts’ story and character beautifully.

Anyway, to sum up, this is s gorgeous novel about the power of story, the strength of ordinary people to endure. It is about identity, about mothers, about love. And told through the lips of a remarkable narrative voice in Matilda.

Thank goodness it’s found its way onto the GCSE set text list… Until the new exams hit us and exam boards revert back to reliable classics!

Finished reading this now, waiting for students at school to catch up! If only some damn fool of a teacher just let them read it instead of teaching it and making them do work on it! Oh well!

This is an outstanding book! The quality of the writing literally glitters on the page and the novel reads more as a poem than a novel: I have never read such a lyrical piece of writing.

The novel revolves around the character of Tsotsi, a young man who is the leader of a gang of four thugs in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s. The name Tsotsi itself means “thug” or “gangster” and we are told in chapter one that it is a nickname: he has no recollection of almost any part of his past including his own name. Identity is a huge part of this novel: Tsotsi’s lack of identity, his inability to construct his features in the mirror into a man with meaning; and his gradual realisation of who he is and how he came to be where he is by the end.

Tsotsi and his gang a clearly very shallow, violent characters lacking empathy with the people around them. Within three chapters, they have stabbed a man on a train, raped a woman in a shebeen, Tsotsi has beaten and “broken” another member of his gang and attempted to rape another woman. He is only stopped in the rape attempt when the woman thrusts a shoebox into his hands which contains a baby.

A word here about the Gavin Hood film of this book. The film updates the novel to the 21st century and seems to make Tsotsi younger and less hard than I had expected: he seems to stab the man on the train almost as a mistake, regretfully, when he starts to complain; he acquires the baby in the film by hijacking a car in the film and shoots the baby’s mother and, again, seems to be an accident. In the book, Tsotsi is utterly remorseless: the murder on the train was a deliberate and calculated murder, not an unfortunate escalation of a robbery. He is shown as not simply accepting violence or being violent but as defining himself through violence and the hurt he deals to others.

I felt that the second half of the book was slightly less tightly structured and written than the first half. The section in the Church and the explicit Christian message seemed unnecessary to me; and the abruptness and ambiguity at the end if the book frustrated me.

In addition to the lyricism, which I mentioned before, what I did relish in the book were the minor characters: Gumboot Dhlamini, the victim on the train; Morris, whom he stalks in the middle of the book; and Miriam whom he forces to feed the baby. The power of these minor characters, inhabiting the furthest outskirts of society, is extraordinary. Their desperate perseverance to keep hold of their lives, whether toiling in the mines or crippled on the streets or waiting for a husband who will never return home, is genuine and authentic and utterly convincing.

13th February

Need to reread this for work and already blown away by the lyricism of the prose. This is a hugely character driven story and, from what I recall, Fugard makes them more than mere ciphers. The small moments of challenge between Tsotsi and Boston in Chapter One reveal Fugard’s theatrical background.

Very lucky to have a job where reading books like this is “work”!

29th Feb

Reading the section in the book where Tsotsi runs from the slums of Sophiatown into the no man’s land between the black and white areas, a liminal space in which the colours became bleached in the moonlight leaving “a prismatic, polished, gleaming world of white surfaces… A glacial white” in which the sounds become “hard, leaping, crystal” and the moonlight “lay around him in pools… Mobile as quicksilver”. An absolutely stunning otherworldly (perhaps drug induced) description. And a moment later, Tsotsi will have the baby that will change his life thrust into his hands. Fabulous!