Slow progress, as usual. Since reading Francine Prose I feel no compulsion to rush. I read and reread because some words, even the simplest ones, are best savoured.
After the first couple of pages I was a little worried about this book. I think I am the only person on the planet who has not taken to the fiction of McCall Smith. I'm afraid it reminded me of the adventures of Brer Rabbit, but I know I am pretty much alone in that.
However, in Mr. Pip things soon picked up enormously; some simple writing, I find, is actually very deep. The voice of an adolescent can give a unique viewpoint, especially one as earnest and searching at Matilda's. I have read a couple of teenage narrators recently but this is the voice I like the best. There is a strange knowing innocence about the voice. She lets things drop into her account with the detail she gives: her mother turns over on her mat for instance - so from that we learn that they sleep on the floor.
I particularly like the passages that describe the effect of listening to a story has on the children. No one had told 'us kids' that they could find friend in a book. 'Or that you could slip inside the skin of another.'
There are passages that made me laugh out loud; here is one of the children's mothers giving them some 'cooking tips'.
'To kill an octopus bite it above the eyes. When cooking a turtle place it shell down first.' ...'To kill a pig, get two fat uncles to place a board across its throat.'In response to the teacher asking how big those uncles had to be she says:
'Fat ones. Fat ones is good. skinny no bloody good.'
Then, immediately after that passage, the villagers run into the jungle in panic after helicopters are heard. He describes them hiding:
'Everywhere in the shadows I saw sweating faces. We tried to blend in with the stillness of the trees. Some stood. Other crouched; those mums with little ones crouched. They stuck their teats into the mouths of their babies to shut them up.'
This is followed by a passage about an old dead dog, which is incredibly moving.
Reading this book has helped me with my own work. The other day I wrestled with the word 'ululation' - should I use this instead of 'howl with grief'? Is it really any better? Orwell would say no, I think, because everyone knows what it is to howl whereas ululation might make some people, like me a few days ago, reach for the dictionary. Reading Mr. Pip has convinced me to stick with howl.