By Lloyd Jones
Dial. 256 pp. $20
On an island called Bougainville in the early 1990s, civil war rages. Rebels have taken up arms, and soldiers helicopter in from nearby Port Moresby to reestablish New Guinea's sovereignty over the island. All the whites have fled except one: Mr. Watts, a New Zealander married to a local woman. He offers to replace the departed teacher and reopen the village school; on the second day of class, he begins to read Great Expectations aloud.
Suddenly, the village's children have a refuge from the incomprehensible conflict engulfing their world. "We could escape to another place," declares Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator. "It didn't matter that it was Victorian England. We found we could easily get there."
New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones's spare, haunting fable explores the power and limitations of art as Matilda chronicles 21 increasingly desperate months. The villagers are trapped between the rebels and the soldiers just as inexorably as Matilda is caught between Mr. Watts and her fiercely religious mother. Outraged by her daughter's immersion in Great Expectations, a novel that she finds both immoral and dangerously irrelevant to their imperiled existence, Matilda's mother insists, "Stories have a job to do. . . . They have to teach you something."
The mother believes she's battling Mr. Watts for Matilda's soul. She already distrusts him because of his wife, Grace. Once a scholarship girl, Grace was supposed to "show the white world how smart a black kid could be," not give up her studies to get married. In the mother's mind, Mr. Watts is just like the white men who tempted away Matilda's father to a well-paid job (and plenty of alcohol) in Australia. They lure black folks from the path of righteousness and independence; Great Expectations is just as lethal as a bottle of booze.
So she hides the islanders' only copy of the book, an act that has mortal consequences. Finding the name "Pip" written in the sand, the soldiers assume he's a rebel leader; when Mr. Watts can't produce proof that "Pip" is just a character in a novel, they burn all the villagers' possessions. There's much worse to come in a bloody denouement that leaves Matilda bereft of the two people whose clashing values she tried so hard to reconcile.
Jones's tale would be bleak indeed were it not for the fact that in their ultimate moments Mr. Watts and her mother surmount their differences to affirm a shared moral code. Matilda grows up and goes to graduate school, still in love with Dickens and Great Expectations. But she also comes to understand that literature doesn't just offer escape, it can take you home. She puts aside her thesis on "Dickens' Orphans" and begins to write this story of the man who "had taught every one of us kids that our voice was special. . . . Whatever else happened in our lives our voice could never be taken away from us."
-- Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."