Thirteen-year-old Matilda lives on a south Pacific island with copper mines. Rebels and other more official warriors are tearing the place apart. A blockade has made resources scarce and communication impossible; fathers are absent at distant work. Along with everything else, the local school collapses. 

Mr. Watts, the only island white man, offers to take over the education of the children, but he has no experience, few materials and just one book: his treasured copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. He begins reading a few pages every day. Captivated by the story, the children repeat it to their mothers when they go home each night.  

Matilda believes that she loves Mr. Dickens more than anyone else and she is both bemused and irritated by her stern mother's suspicion of the strange, possibly godless, white man and her feigned disinterest in Pip. Parents are invited to the school to pass on their own expectations about learning. Students accept these moments with pride and embarrassment.

The political chaos deepens, homes are destroyed, and the book vanishes. But Watts (nicknamed Mr. Pip) turns the loss to advantage by helping the students to recover fragments in a lengthy effort of collective recollection.

The ever menacing warriors return. Little more than frightened children in an incomprehensible conflict, they indulge in senseless brutality and killing. With courage absorbed from her mother, Matilda escapes, rediscovers her father, and finds a scholarly future—a life she embraces because of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Pip.


A remarkable achievement. The ingénue voice of an adolescent black girl composed by a middle-aged , white man, who, as a journalist, covered the events of the 1990 Bougainville blockade in Papua New Guinea.

With a simple honesty, Matilda narrates her observations and musings about human nature and their aspirations. The relationship between mother and daughter is intense: both fraught and close. Maternal suspicion arises in jealously and fear and mixes with defiance. The decency, strength and optimism of the impoverished islanders is a testimony to the greater value of intangible riches.

Watts is mysterious. The black children have difficulty understanding how he came to marry an island woman and what it must be like to be white;  they ask him often for his sentiments. Matilda especially seeks to uncover how the teacher found his way to her island and the nature of his marriage, only to feel ashamed of her intrusion. He was not the great hero that he once seemed.

Later, she learns that their recollected Great Expectations was not exactly like the original; Watts effected his own distortions and his students made theirs. A book is shaped by its telling and its context. As Pip was Dickens, Watts and Matilda became Pip.

Dickens fans (and perhaps those interested in Margaret Mead) will find many inverted parallels of gender, race and class in this ‘autobiographical,’ postmodern tale about coming of age in New Guinea (not Samoa).


This novel won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for best overall book, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for fiction (2007).


Vintage Canada

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