With its lovely cover, and the promise of Dickensian fun in paradise, I was easily lured into this novel. I’ll admit that having missed most of the hype about it when it came out, I was expecting a soft and lightly humorous novel along the lines of the The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. It didn’t take long for these fanciful notions to be dispelled and replaced with less cosy and rather greater expectations!
The story is narrated by Matilda, looking back at the events that happened on Bougainville, her Pacific island home when she was fourteen. It’s the 1990s, and there is civil unrest brewing on the island, which has yet to reach the end where Matilda lives. School has been shut for some time and everyone is surprised when Mr Watts decides to reopen it. Mr Watts, whom the kids all call Pop Eye, is the last white man living in the village. He promises to introduce the children to Mr Dickens – and initially their hopes are dashed when Mr Dickens is found to be a long-dead author. When Mr Watts starts to read Great Expectations to them, one chapter a day it piques their interest, for Mr Watts turns out to be a natural storyteller.
Matilda and the other children take Pip to their hearts. The book allows their imagination to fly beyond their island boundaries and confirms to them that there is another world out there. Matilda’s god-fearing mother is suspicious of Mr Dickens and the faithless Mr Watts, and their war of words is a highlight of the novel. However civil war intervenes with the arrival of the brutal ‘Redskins’ who have seen a word Matilda spelt out in seashells on the sand – ‘Pip’. Demanding to see Pip, things rapidly turn nasty and the novel takes on sombre tone, and Mr Watts will prove that he is a good and decent man.
The parallels with Dickens abound, but I must admit my limited familiarity with Great Expectations really comes from the classic black and white film with John Mills as Pip rather than the book, which I read at school. I think that if you know the Dickens well, this novel will fascinate on a different level – without that, I did feel inspired to read the Dickens properly sometime soon.
It did evoke a picture of a life very different to our own successfully I thought – it would have been idyllic if not for the war. When the insurgents turned up, the pace upped a notch, and in the later stages there was a certain amount of convenient wrapping up at the end, which fell a little flat for me. It was an enjoyable read, and if a book can make you want to read Dickens, that must be alright! (7.5/10) I bought this book.
* * * * *
To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Great Expectations (Oxford World’s Classics) by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations [DVD]  starring John Mills, directed by David Lean.