Tag-Archive for ◊ Commonwealth Writers ◊

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• Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Lloyd Jones was born in Lower Hutt in the Wellington region of New Zealand in 1955. He studied at Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University in Wellington. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University and has worked as a journalist and a consultant as well as a writer.

In 1989 he received the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, one of New Zealand’s long-standing and prestigious literary awards.

Lloyd Jones has written several novels, short stories, children’s books and non fiction. Mister Pip, which is part of post-colonial literature, was published in 2006. It is Lloyd Jones’ best-selling novel and the one that made him internationally known. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Overall Winner, Best Book and was short-listed in 2007 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. It also won the Kiriyama Prize and the Montana Medal for fiction the same year. It has been adapted into a feature film which will be released later in 2012. Lloyd Jones now lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The story of Mister Pip has an historical background as it relates the 1990’s Bougainville blockade by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville being rich in copper. This was an event which led to a civil war covered by Lloyd Jones who was then a journalist.

The novel starts in the early 1990’s. The narrator is the thirteen-year-old black girl, Matilda Laimo, the main character in the novel, who lives with her devout mother Dolores in a shack in Bougainville, a small tropical island in the South Pacific and a province of Papua New Guinea. The island is torn by civil war between the befuddled rebel forces called the Rambos and the atrociously inhuman government soldiers, called the Redskins. Matilda’s father, who was out of a job due to the closing down of the copper mines, left the island a few years before the blockade like several natives. He was hired to work for a mining company in Townsville, Australia and his wife Dolores and daughter Matilda were hoping to join him later but were held back by the imposed blockade.

Matilda is a child lacking paternal presence and support in her teenage life. She has a difficult relationship with her mother whom she loves and feels loyal to despite being ashamed of her reasoning, behaviour and difficulty understanding simple things.

In order to escape the atrocious reality and the horror of war surrounding them, Matilda and the other children allow themselves to be transported by the novel, Great Expectations, into an imaginary Dickensian world of 19th century Victorian England. Thanks to Mr Watts’ astuteness in transmitting his great admiration for Charles Dickens to his pupils, he takes pleasure in reading them a chapter from this well known novel every day.

Matilda says: “He kept reading and we kept listening” and when “the flow of words had ended, slowly we stirred back into our bodies and our lives”. Mr Watts sums it all up in these few words: “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames. For me, Matilda, Great Expectations is such a book”.

The children were mostly fascinated by the main character, the orphan teenager, Pip, whom they could relate to. Matilda was especially under Pip’s spell. She was writing his name in the sand and with shells on the beach. Little did she know at the time that her deed would provoke the savage butchering of Mr Watts, followed by her mother’s by the Redskins who thought that Pip was one of the rebels concealed by the natives. A gruesome tragedy to intensify the abhorrent deeds carried out during these civil wars. As Lloyd Jones says about the Bougainville blockade: “the most unspeakable things happened without once raising the ire of the outside world”. Starting from 1989 and for ten years, the island was completely cut off from the world.

The skinny, solitary, Mr Watts or Pop-Eye, as everybody calls him in the village because of his protruding eyes, “eyes that wanted to leave his face”, is the baffling, self proclaimed teacher. After all the teachers leave the island, he is the only white person who remains despite the civil war, because of his native black wife, Grace, whom he met in New Zealand while she was studying dentistry and followed her home. They both live in the old mission house. Mr Watts is from New Zealand and is a bizarre, elusive, mysterious person. Matilda says: “Mr Dickens was easier to understand than Mr Watts” who “was whatever he needed to be”, a teacher, a magician, a clown with a red nose and ends-up being a saviour for the community when the Redskins needed a scapegoat to slaughter and set as an example.

Later in the novel, Matilda reads Great Expectations and discovers that Mr Watts had read his own version of the novel, rather than reading the original text to the children. “His Pacific version of Great Expectations” as she calls it, or “Pip in the Pacific” as he had named it a few years earlier, proving his gift as a story teller. He shows this talent when he gathers the whole community to recount his own story and keep them all mesmerized by his recounting: “On hearing Mr Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. And the old women too and with the respect they once reserved for prayer… And the Rambos were as enthralled as the rest of us”.

The author treats several powerful themes in his novel and enhances his story with his description of the natives’ naive characters, their desperation mixed with a feeling of helplessness, their uncomplicated basic existence, living of picked fruit and fishing, their gullibility, their pidgin Bible, their superstitions and their simplistic life and beliefs and their power of endurance. Nature is portrayed in a bright, colourful, enchanting way which contrasts with the sombre subject of loss and atrocious bloodshed. The once peaceful, beautiful, tropical island becomes a nightmare place.

A fascinating, original, thought provoking, poignant and captivating novel inside another novel, demonstrating the power of imagination and the effect of literature on people’s lives and how it can be an essential tool providing escapism and survival, whereby fiction and reality intertwine.

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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
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• Friday, February 26th, 2010

Tash Aw was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1971 from Malaysian parents. When he was two years old his parents moved back to their homeland, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he grew up. He was educated at a Catholic School and moved to England with his parents when he was in his teens.

He read law at the University of Cambridge and Warwick and with his degree in hand, he worked in various jobs, including as a lawyer for four years. In 2002 he obtained a degree at the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, while working on his first novel which he completed during this time.

The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw’s first novel, was published in 2005. It was long listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, won the 2005 Whitbread Book Award First Novel Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region), as well as the Guardian First Book Prize. It was also long listed for the 2007 International Impac Dublin Award.

The Harmony Silk Factory was translated to several languages. Tash Aw, comments on Literature, film and culture in South East Asia for the BBC on a regular basis. Tash Aw’s second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was published in May 2009. He currently lives in Islington, London.

The Harmony Silk Factory is set in the 1930s and 1940s with the background of the second world war and the Japanese who are about to invade British occupied Malaysia. The title of the book refers to Johnny Lim’s textile shop in the Kinta valley, where he ran his illegal shady businesses and his political affairs.

The novel is divided into three parts. Each part represents the opinion of the narrator and his version of Johnny’s mysterious life, by going backwards and forwards in time.

His son Jasper, who is now in his forties and seems to dislike his father strongly, starts the narration in a subjective way. He is followed by Johnny’s famously beautiful, unfaithful, well-bred, deceased wife, Snow Soong, who died at childbirth, through her diary. The third and last version of the novel is by Johnny Lim’s best friend, the eccentric British expatriate, Peter Wormwood, who is in his seventies and spent most of his life in Malaysia.

Peter reminisces about the past, while debating with his inmates about the flora and fauna in order to plan a design for an English style garden in the old people’s home, run by the Catholic Church, where he now lives.

Three different characters, three distinct accounts and viewpoints about the same events, re-shaped by each narrator in order to shed a variety of light on the main character, the Chinese born, Johnny Lim, the self made, highly ambitious rich merchant.

Jasper, his son portrays him as an objectionable, hateful, dishonest, murderer, traitor and Machiavellian personality. His wife, Snow Soong, sees him as a naive, taciturn person of a humble background. While his friend Peter describes him as the best and only friend he ever had.

Throughout the story the reader never finds out Johnny Lim’s version in order to surmise if he was a hero or a villain or read his side of the story. In fact, the author ends his novel with a few loose ends, maybe as an invitation for the reader to draw his own conclusion.

The reader better gets to know the psychologically tortured, repressed feelings of the human imperfection of these well developed main characters: Johnny Lim, Snow Soong, Peter Wormwood, his unpleasant compatriot, Frederick Honey, the manager of the British controlled tin mine and the suavely cunning, multi-lingual, highly cultured, Japanese professor Mamoru Kunichika, to whom Snow was strongly attracted during their action-adventure trip to the mysterious Seven Maiden islands, which is supposed to be Johnny and Snows belated honeymoon trip.

The Harmony Silk Factory is a novel without much action, with loose ends and yet it’s a pleasurable book to read. Because of the author’s skillful writing, his prose is pure and uncluttered and his psychological analysis of each character with his strength and weaknesses, gives a credible dimension to the story. Last but not least is his vivid description of the luxuriant nature of the beautiful Malaysia.