A child all too earthbound (by skin color, geography, family, and a quirk of historic timing) is taught to soar by immersion in the 19th-century world created by Charles Dickens in
Great Expectations. By novel’s end, however, now grown up and a Dickens scholar, Matilda is aware that Pip, the character with
whom she became obsessed at 13, had failed to shield her against terrifying reality. Still, he remains her touchstone.
“I want this to be a place of light, no matter what happens,” Mr. Watts, the wispy, wasted-looking Dickens mentor of her Bougainville island school had pledged. Yet his star pupil
learns too soon that even the most compelling literature has limitations when evil exists just outside the frame of an empowering piece of writing.
This Booker Prize-nominated novel from New Zealander Lloyd Jones is so multi-layered as to assure highly diverse interpretation and lively argumentation. Yet within lie enchantments of language and of character offering that most basic and too scarce of literary gifts: sheer reading delight. An example is a sequence in which both fictional teacher and actual reader become pupils themselves, listening in awe, amusement, at times amazement to mini-lectures by students’ “mums” on subjects cultural, practical, folk-loric, fantastical. The teacher’s invitation
is for them to share “what they knew of the world.” And what a treasure trove that turns out to be:
“Gilbert’s mum turned to face us. She closed her eyes and recited: ‘To kill an octopus, bite it above the eyes. When cooking a turtle, place it shell down first.’ She looked across to Mr. Watts, who nodded for her to continue. ‘To kill a pig, get two fat uncles to place a board across its throat.’”
Matilda routinely maintains a close watch on Mr. Watts - the only white man not to flee the island as civil war spread, his history unknown but with the look, she thinks, of having survived “great suffering.” This parade of mums passing through the classroom quickens her curiosity, and she searches for a sign that he might be dismissing “what they knew of the world” as nonsense:
“His face never gave such a sign. It displayed respectful interest, even when Daniel’s grandmother, stooped and old on her canes announced, “I will tell you everything I know about the color blue. . . Blue is the color of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for the blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the color blue.”
Color is a thread running through the novel, not surprisingly, with Matilda and her fellow islanders being black, a frightening government military force lurking nearby (labeled “redskins”), and the children having come under the influence of a white teacher. “We had grown up believing,” Matilda notes, “white to be the color of all the important things, like ice cream, aspirin, ribbon, the moon, the stars.”
If passages shot with sheer word magic and deft storytelling serve the reader well, so do certain characters. Matilda’s “mum”, a woman of fierce religious fervor, wields her faith as weapon against a force in her daughter’s life that she fears and abhors: the words within the covers of a single book and the white man who teaches from its pages. Can Mrs. Laimo‘s God compete with Dickens’ Pip for Matilda’s fealty
- for her very soul?
It seems not, for, as the grown-up Matilda affirms at the conclusion, “Pip is my story, even if I was once a girl, and my face as black as the shining night. Pip is my story.”
There is complexity suggested even in a character – commander of the Redskin soldiers pitted against the rebels - who both exudes evil intent and has the power to order evil to be done: “Once more I saw how yellow and bloodshot his eyes were. How sick he was with malaria. How sick of everything he was. How sick of being a human being.”
As readers our journey segues from enchantment to growing fears of what is to follow. Dread is proved valid by the concluding ordeal of those for whom we have come to care. It is a downward plummeting that cannot be stopped nor understood. Two kinds of fury are unleashed – that wrought by man in the form of primitive violence and that decreed by nature -- a rampaging flash flood. Both furies punish the innocent. Had she survived, would Mrs. Laimo have been able to answer in later years a question her daughter might’ve put to her: “ Why did your God not rescue us but, instead, tried also to destroy us?”
Though a genuinely riveting read, I must, nevertheless, disagree with the
author’s choice in the final section to peel away the mystery of Mr. Watts’ life
prior to that Bougainville classroom. In the process of being fitted with a
biography, he is made to seem banal.