Behind the times as usual, I’ve read this much-hyped book long after everyone else. When it first came out I was intrigued by the idea that the plot revolved around Great Expectations, a favourite book, and by the pretty cover by Petra Borner. As you see, it matches my current knitting!
The reader is jumped straight into a mysterious world. Where exactly is the island? Who on earth are the redskins? (I never did work that one out). Matilda the narrator and her mother live in a village terrorized alternately by rebels (against what?) and by the redskins. The Only White Man On The Island, known as Pop Eye, then as Mr Watts (his real name) and finally as Mr Pip, takes on the children’s education by reading them Great Expectations and so leading them into a world completely beyond their experience. So far, so good and interesting. Lloyd Jones lost me for a while around page 143, when Mr Watts begins a serial telling of his life story and the story of his marriage to strange Grace. The tale, as recounted by him, of the attempts by husband and wife to reconcile their black/white differences by writing messages on the walls for their baby daughter left me completely cold. I am more impressed by the civilisation which produced Charles Dickens than by any amount of native wisdom. This sounds like cultural imperialism; sorry, I can’t help it.
I also have a problem with the narrative voice. By the end of the novel we know that Matilda has survived the horrors of her youth, graduated from university and is writing a thesis on Dickens. Yet the account given of the terrible events on the island is written as if by a schoolgirl. You can’t have it both ways. What you do take from this novel is the idea of the value of literature as escape and alternative universe, something which Matilda probably needed her maturity and her degree to be able to express. I’m glad I read it as it's based on a brilliant idea; pity it doesn't quite come off. As soon as I’d finished I started another re-read of Great Expectations.