Very early in this book comes a piece of wisdom from Mr. Watts (also known as Pop Eye, and as “Mister Pip”): “I have no wisdom, none at all. The truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we’ve got. Oh, and of course Mr. Dickens.”
For most of Jones’ readers, Dickens is going to be the familiar character here, but for the children in an unnamed village on the island of Bougainville, he is a stranger. And Mr. Watts, the only white man in the village, has come to be their teacher amid chaotic circumstances. Apparently all he can think of to do, in order to keep order and impart wisdom or even information to the village children, is to read Great Expectations aloud. The narrator, Pip, becomes lodged in the imagination of Matilda, who narrates Mister Pip.
You could say this book was an inversion of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, in which the hapless English aristocrat ends up in the South American jungle, perpetually reading Dickens aloud to his de factor captor. You could equally say that, like Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, this is a story about the power of a story. I always like those.
A lot happens. The South Pacific island of Bougainville is torn apart by two factions known to the villagers as the “redskins” and the “rambos.” The island is being blockaded, so there is no food, and no real way for the villagers to escape. (There’s a certain Lord of the Flies feeling to it, as well.) Matilda’s mother frames Mr. Watts’ reading of Dickens as blasphemous, and goes toe to toe with him for control of the children’s souls. She cannot understand how Mr. Watts can believe in Pip but not believe in the devil. In fact, his choice is curious, because evil is certainly abroad on this island.
Jones structures the novel ingeniously, constantly cranking up the tension and raising the stakes. He writes really well: the voice of the narrator, Matilda, is immensely appealing. And he’s not afraid of the big emotional statement. But what probably moved me most was the paragraph when Matilda explains why she is so loyal to Dickens: Great Expectations “supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed. It gave me a friend in Pip. It taught me you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own… Now, if that isn’t an act of magic, I don’t know what is.”