In the 1990's the island of bougainville was in the midst of a civil war, sparked by the exploitation of their hugely profitable copper mine. This led to a blockade of the island and brutal guerrilla warfare involving Redskins(government troops) and Rambos(rebel forces from the island).
The only white man who didn't flee the island after the blockade is Mr Watts, who pulls is native wife around on a cart, sometimes wearing a red clowns nose. This re-emerges throughout the novel and an explanation is not forthcoming until the end of the book. Mr Watts decides to re-open the school, but as he says himself he is no teacher, and he only has one textbook, Great Expectations, which is what he uses.
"I will be honest with you. I have no wisdom, none at all. The truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we've got. Oh, and of course Mr Dickens."
Mr Watts uses Great Expectations as a way of giving the children a means of escape from the hardships they are suffering on the island. Just as pip escapes starts a new life, he wants the children to do the same, if only in their heads. Matilda is thirteen, and becomes enthralled with Pip and his story. The more she tells her mother about pip and his story, the more her mother becomes opposed to the book, and therefore Mr Watts. Mr Watts realises this and invites the adults of the village into school to share their knowledge. Matilda however, empathises more with Pip than the stories and moral messages of her mother, and builds a shrine to Pip on the beach, which sets in motion a fatal series of events when redskin Solders arrive demanding to know who Pip is. Due to a yet unknown betrayal the villagers cannot produce the book that would explain who Pip is so they end up losing their possessions and eventually their homes.
The idea of stories having the ability to change peoples lives permeates this novel. Matilda is consumed by Pip and his story, the villagers try to use their stories to try and sway the children away from the white mans novel that they are suspicious of, and Mr Watts holds the Rebel army at bay with stories. The idea that stories pervade your life and give it meaning, as well as escape from real life is made clear in Mr Watts statement to the Rebel army,
"A dream is a story that no-one else will get to hear or read"
The writing is simplistic but effective. It almost gives a dreamlike quality to the whole thing (stories again), and even the horrific events that form the climax of the novel are told in a matter of fact way. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the whole story, but the actual horrors are quickly described, and almost come from nowhere, as they would in a dream. I was left with a sense of horror that will stay with me for a long time, and I think this is exacerbated by the simplistic and matter of fact way it is told, and the pragmatic way the villagers deal with it. The fate of the pigs, for anyone who has read this!
I loved this book. It was fantastic. I don't think I can fault it at all. I think a quote from the novel sums up perfectly how it feels to read this book.
"a person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe"