This booker-nominated work was highly recommended to me, and has a rare A+ rating from complete-review.com , so I was keen to read it as soon as it came out in paperback.
It's a slim novel, told by a young black girl, Matilda, resident of a village on an unnamed island in the Pacific between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. At the start of the novel she's 13, and the island is in the middle of a war at the beginning of the 1990s. There are no young adult males in the village as they have all either been killed by Papuan troops, which have blockaded the island, or joined rebels on the interior of the island.
The atrocities of the war, however, are kept in the background of the narrative as Matilda tells of her education by Mr Watts, the only white person on the island. Mr Watts is neither qualified nor experienced as a teacher, and has no teaching materials, so his lessons consist entirely of readings from Great Expectations. This is the first contact for his students with literature, and very soon they are engaged by one of the most enduringly popular stories.
As the pupils become engrossed in Dickens, the threat of the war diminishes, although there's conflict with their own families. The mothers, mostly very religious, are sceptical about the morality of this foreign work, so Mr Watts co-opts them into teaching, inviting them in to give a small speech to the class about anything they knew, whether it be how to fish or cook, or old legends.
The war returns, more than once, and Matilda, her mother and Mr Watts are unwillingly drawn into a prominent role. 'Mister Pip' is mistaken by an army commander of being a real rebel, rather than a fictional narrator of a 19th century novel, and this comical error has disastrous consequences.
This is a multi-layered book of more complex moral issues than at first appears. There are themes of wandering and emigration, paralleling Great Expectations with the stories of Mr Watts, and ultimately Matilda too, of post-colonial worlds, of black versus white, traditional versus modern education, religious myth and fiction, and the uses and purpose of literature. Yet all these themes are within a deceptively light narrative, so light that when the instances of brutality do occur they are truly shocking.
I had a small problem with the narrator's voice, which appeared to be that of a 13 year old girl, but with emotional observations of an older woman. It's later revealed that the narrator is the same girl aged about 23, which explains the latter, but not the simple style, especially as she has completed an English degree. That contradiction jarred only slightly, and ignores the achievement of a middle-aged New Zealand man impersonating a young female Pacific islander. I've already recommended this to one person (who, by chance, was reading GE), and may buy it for others.