I know what you’re wondering: is this book really worth the cool million-dollar price tag it’s been given? Does it live up to all that hype? Do your fingers get smudged with gold as you turn its pages? Yes and no. No, it’s not printed with gold leaf, and no, it’s not the most amazing thing I’ve ever read.
But, it does deserve to make a million more than many bestsellers do, largely because of its strong idea, which has been boiled down to something pithy like, “in the midst of a bloody civil war, the last white man on Bougainville reads a chapter a day of Great Expectations to his class of native children.”
Choosing to tell the story from the perspective of grown-up Matilda, looking back on the months that strange, white Mr Watts read to her class from “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century,” Jones gives himself a great deal more scope than if he’d taken on the point of view of the middle-aged white man. In fact, Mr Watts, the character that we expect the author to know best, is the enigma of the book, only slightly less mysterious than his mad wife, Grace, who is never heard from and hardly ever seen. Mr Watts, nicknamed Popeye by Matilda and her peers, is at first the odd guy who wears a red clown nose and pulls his wife around in a little cart. Next, he is the man who steps in as teacher when the rest of the white people have fled the island. Then he is the friend, who introduces Matilda to Mr Pip, and explains foreign things like “frost” and “moors” and “vittles” to Bougainvilleans who have never left the island. He gives Matilda a distraction from the poverty her village is suffering. She dreamily spells Mr Pip in stones on the beach, and creates comparisons between herself and Pip, her mother and Estella, her mother and Miss Havisham, and Mr Watts and Joe Gargery, until her life on the island is nearly as reliable as a book. It is after the soldiers find Matilda’s writing on the beach that things begin to go horrifically downhill.
Questions of plausibility and authenticity that arise when an author assumes the voice of someone completely different to himself are all answerable in this case. Matilda is an endearingly sincere, intelligent and deadpan narrator. By giving her a successful future, post-civil-war- Bougainville, Jones has allowed Matilda’s voice an educated, mature quality, which aids the story’s clarity. This experienced tone doesn’t, however, undermine the naïve, childlike perspective that comes from Matilda’s memories of Mr Watts. The other inevitable quibble is, “what on earth is Mr Watts doing staying on Bougainville during the civil war anyway?” Although I won’t go into it here, I assure you the question is answered. In fact, the one fault that I find with this book is that everything extremely tightly tied up and explained, in way that is skilful but also slightly annoying. For example, the lovely idea of story-telling being used as a means of survival, which is a definite theme of the book, seemed a bit laboured by the end.
However, this aspect was minor in the scheme of the book. Over all, it had the strength of a classic and I did not want to put it down. To properly describe my state, I must quote Mr Watts: “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.”