A much-loved Kiwi book defies my expectations and breaks my heart.
I feel a bit betrayed.
I thought I knew what I was getting into with this book. It would be a heart-warming story, I assumed, about a white teacher who comes to the island of Bougainville and introduces a group of children to Dickens’ Great Expectations, thus changing their lives. To be honest, I also expected to be made uncomfortable by the inherently racist storyline of “white man opens savages’ eyes to the glories of English culture”.
It didn’t take long for me to revise those views. First, I marvelled at the way Lloyd Jones – a middle-aged white New Zealand male – assumes the voice of Bougainvillean Matilda. Matilda narrates the book as an adult, but she is remembering her life from ages 13 to 15, and Jones gives us a teenage understanding of the world without sounding cutesy or too precocious. Here’s Matilda talking about her mother:
My mum didn’t smile enough. When she did it was nearly always in victory. Or else it was at night-time when she thought she was alone. … In fact, she appeared to be angry much of the time. I used to think it was because she was thinking about my dad. But she couldn’t have thought about him all the time.
Mr Watts, the aforementioned teacher, also took me by surprise. Sure, he plays the role of saviour in Matilda’s life, but he’s no saint. He doesn’t arrive on the island intending to educate the natives. He becomes their schoolteacher almost by accident, and he decides to read Great Expectations to them because Dickens is one of the few things he feels equipped to teach. By chance, Matilda identifies with the main character, Pip, and Mr Watts – Pip’s real-life stand-in – becomes a figure of hope for her. That doesn’t mean Mr Watts is particularly noble or superior, and Jones/Matilda doesn’t paint him as such:
To see him on the beach in his baggy old shorts with a plastic bucket was to wonder what had happened to Mr Watts of the classroom. You saw how terribly thin he had become or really was … He looked like a skinny white vine. To see him so stooped was to realise the special effort he made to dress and stand tall in class. On the beach, though, he was like the rest of us.
So far, so pleasant. The story takes place in the ’90s, during the brutal Bougainville Civil War, and violence is always lurking at the edges of Matilda’s life. But she (and the reader) feels safe within the bubble of the classroom, where the children are transported daily to 19th-century London.
Then everything changes. Great Expectations – the thing that once served as a harmless escape – threatens to destroy the villagers’ lives in a very real way. The final quarter of the book is relentlessly violent. In the most traumatic way possible, Matilda is forced to grow up almost instantly. And, at the same time, this reader was forced to let go of her assumption that the book would have a straightforward happy ending.
I found Mister Pip almost unbearably sad, but there is optimism here too. Jones writes unflinchingly about a dark reality, and, in doing so, he shows how small things – like a 150-year-old novel – can be a means of survival.