Bougainville, a small island off Papua New Guinea, was ruined in the 1990s by a violent independence struggle. The islanders’ attempts at resisting exploitation led to cruel blockades and bloody fighting, with widespread civilian suffering.
The novel by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones takes place against this backdrop. Its narrator is 13-year-old Matilda. Many residents from her village have fled the conflict, but one white man, Mr Watts, remains. He takes over the education of the village’s children. He reads them Great Expectations, and Matilda is instantly enthralled by Pip’s story. Her mother, though, is less impressed, threatened by the roles that Pip, Dickens and Mr Watts are playing in her daughter’s life.
Soldiers arrive in the village and insist that this fellow Pip is brought forward. A simple case of mistaken identity is exacerbated by the theft of the book. Despite some artful dodging by Matilda and Mr Watts, the escape that Pip’s story has provided is brought to a harsh end.
There are some harrowing, scenes, but Jones avoids being overly sentimental. Much is being made of Mister Pip in the southern hemisphere, and with good reason: it is an intelligent novel that says as much about the power of reading as it does about bloodshed and loss.