'You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. 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.'
After the trouble starts and the soldiers arrive on Matilda's tropical island, only one white person stays behind. Mr Watts wears a red nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley. The kids call him Pop Eye. But there is no one else to teach them their lessons. Mr Watts begins to read aloud to the class from his battered copy of Great Expectations, a book by his friend Mr Dickens.
Soon Dickens' hero Pip starts to come alive for Matilda. She writes his name in the sand and decorates it with shells. Pip becomes as real to her as her own mother, and the greatest friendship of her life has begun.
But Matilda is not the only one who believes in Pip. And, on an island at war, the power of the imagination can be a dangerously provocative thing.
Matilda is a young girl who lives on a tropical island with her mother. Her father has gone to Australia for work. Whilst the intention was that he would be sending for them in due course, they have not heard from him for a long time, and any hope of leaving is quickly doused when life on the island is interrupted by a guerrilla war between the native islanders and the 'redskins'. The year is 1991, and the island is Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, and I can remember when war broke out on that island. Unfortunately, what I remember is very much tainted by the news as we heard it here in Australia, so it is more about the evacuation of the many Australian workers who were employed in the lucrative mines and not so much about the effect of the warfare on the native population. This lack of coverage or assistance for the native population is covered in the novel as the characters talk about waiting for the outside world to assist them, not realising that there was an embargo placed on the island. When I was writing this post, I looked up some information on Bougainville and was surprised to find that the conflict is still ongoing into the early parts of this decade, although on a much reduced scale. There was still enough instability that the mines on the island were still closed, thus depriving many of the islanders of their main source of income.
With the outbreak of war, many of the things that are taken for granted like electricity and refrigeration are lost, and the islanders have to revert to a more simpler way of life, one much more like the way their ancestors would have lived. Another thing that changes for the village children is that their teacher leaves the island on the last boat (a phrase that for Matilda shows how helpless the islanders really are now).
Into the gap left by the departed teacher steps Mr Watts. He is a white man who has remained on the island despite the war. He is called Pop Eye by the children on the island, and before becoming the children's teacher was treated with derision because he often used to wear a clown's red nose and pull his wife around on a trolley. But when he comes to the classroom he opens up a whole new world to many of the children, most especially to Matilda.
Because he is not a qualified teacher, he doesn't know what to teach the children so he starts by introducing them to his friend Mr Dickens, by reading them the book Great Expectations, and so a group of children on a tropical island find themselves transported to Victorian England. He also invites the villagers to come in and share important facts with the children often with very humourous results.
This book is incredibly layered. It is about the power of reading, the destruction that is wrought on individuals and groups of people during war, the sacrifices that people make to save those that they love. It also shows how the discovery of a single story can change the direction of an individuals life, and how passion for a particular subject can lead you places you could never have imagined as a young child.
This book was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in the same year. At 220 pages, this book isn't long, but it is a moving and powerful novel.
Coincidentally this is the second book that I have read in a month that features Dicken's Great Expectations. The first was Jack Maggs by Peter Carey, which I never realised was a retelling of the Dicken's classic because I have never actually read the original story. Maybe the fact that I have read two books in such a short period that reference it is a message to tell me to read the original story!
Cross posted on my blog.