This book left me with a lingering sense of loss and a burning desire to read Great Expectations. This is a book about the power of stories and the way great stories help us to understand the world. It is also about what makes people part of a community, and how communities behave when they are under pressure. The final theme through the book is about how people can re-invent themselves, like young Pip, and the challenges of reconciling your new self with your old home – the migrant’s loss of belonging.
Set in a small village in Papua New Guinea, as civil war breaks out in the early 1990s, this book tells the story of a village through the eyes of a young girl, Matilda. As the war begins, we see the white people evacuate and life in the village contract as supplies dwindle, trade becomes impossible and they have to survive on fish from the sea and fruits from the trees. At the start of the book this isn’t that big of a problem, it just sees people returning to a simpler way of life. The writing is lyrical and captures the slow, dreamy pace of life in a village seemingly isolated from the world.
There is one remaining white man, Mr Watts, who is married to someone in the village. Despite a lack of any qualifications, Mr Watts takes over the running of the village school and, in the absence of any other resources, begins inviting their parents and relatives into the class to share what they know. So, they come in and share their stories: everything from Matilda’s mother giving warnings against the devil, to fishing tips and reflections on the colour blue. Alongside this Mr Watts starts reading the children Great Expectations. The children soak up the story, so much so that when the soldiers appear in the village, they demand to know where Mr Pip is, and when he isn’t produced, they burn the villagers’ possessions and warn that they will return soon and there will be dreadful consequences if Mr Pip isn’t handed over.
From here the story gets darker and the tension grows, shimmering over the village like the relentless heat. We learn more about Mr Watts’ history and Matilda struggles to identify what is truth and what is fiction as Mr Watts embroiders his life story with Great Expectations and all the stories told in the shcool room. Central to this story is the idea of being able to leave your past behind and to reinvent yourself, which is why the story of young Pip resonates so much with both Mr Watts and Matilda. We also see Matilda struggle between loyalty to her very religious Mother with her traditional views of life and her loyalty to the wonderful Mr Watts who has given her Great Expectations and a new way of viewing the world. We see how Matilda’s understanding of the story gives her new insights into her Mother’s often hostile behaviour, which coincides with Matilda herself growing up.
All of these threads are pulled together in the brutal scenes when the soldiers return to the village for the third time. I won’t tell you what happens, because you should really read the book, but I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. After this scene, the rest of the book passed in something of a blur as Matilda struggles to make sense of what has happened and find peace., and central to all of this is the comfort she finds in returning, time and again, to Great Expectations and Mr Dickens.
Altogether a brilliant read – but keep the tissues handy.