My review of the same book:
The blurb was all about the transformative power of books, and how a lone white man in a remote South Pacific island changes peoples' lives by reading Great Expectations to them during a blockade. Doesn't exactly sound promising, does it? That's what I figured too, and I gave up for a while after reading the first chapter. The book begins with the narrator talking about a white man nicknamed Pop Eye who used to drag his huge native wife through the village on a trolley in the afternoons. This Pop Eye guy even has a red clown nose. The writing was simple and engaging but really, I wasn't going to read another of these things. When it appeared on the shortlist a few days later, I felt vindicated - yes, look, they even put it on that shortlist, it can't be that good. Yesterday, I decided to give it one more try - after all, its about Great Expectations, how bad can it be?
Well, not bad at all. Its the best of the ones on the shortlist that I have read but that doesn't mean much as the other two are the McEwan and the Hamid. But that's really all that I can say about it! The story is set in the early 1990s, and it is narrated by Matilda, originally of Bougainville, now an immigrant Australian. Matilda is thirteen when the blockade begins. The world has forgotten their fertile little island, the boys have all gone to join the rebels ("rambos"), the "redskins" fly above in their choppers, the teachers have taken the last boat out. Mr Watts aka Pop Eye, the only white man in the village agrees to teach the children. He introduces them to Mr Dickens through Great Expectations. Matilda, like most other children immediately takes to the rimy mornings and the marshes of Victorian England, and falls in love with Pip and Joe Gaggery. To her mother's chagrin, Pip becomes more dear to her than the relatives in the family tree, or the God that her mother worships with a dangerous intensity. The situation worsens as is expected, and its only a matter of time before the redskins get to the village. Any world would be nice to escape to in such a situation, and (I guess) Dickensian England qualifies.
Jones's writing is simple but clever, folksy in a way, and his descriptions of the island and the people are charming. The problem though is that it doesn't go much beyond "charming". The characters are stereotypes, (though they speak in a really endearing manner) and its left to the reader to figure out why Pip should prove to be important to Matilda or anyone else for that matter. Its almost as if any other book or character would have done quite as well - why Pip? why Dickens? (
But wait, we aren't done with the story yet. Jones is not content with letting Pip live in his fictitious world, and this (sort of) saves the book. The redskins arrive, and seeing the beach-side shrine that Matilda built for Pip, they are convinced that Pip is a rebel and demand that he be handed over. With that, Pip is solidly in the island, he is one of them. Atrocities happen as expected and I don't want to give away the rest of the plot but will just say that it involves a story within a story narrative where Mr Watts spins his life, the stories of the islanders, and the story of Pip, basically everything that we have read so far into a neat yarn spread over seven nights. Interested? Go read.
Again, Jones is a clever writer, and I especially liked the way he describes the atrocities of war. So simple, understated, matter-of-fact and yet it conveys so much. The problem is that you don't really feel for the characters - I am reading about these brutalities thinking how clever the writing is, and not really about what the thirteen year old protagonist is going through and that doesn't seem quite right. Also, Jones unfortunately doesn't end the story in the island - he goes on for another fifty or so pages about Matilda's Dad, and Australia, and England and Dickens which is all very inane and serves no purpose whatsoever.
So did I like it? Yeah, it was nice. Pleasant reading. The writing is cool, some parts of the narrative are engrossing, and its good to see the author going beyond just the escapism theme. Worth a read, I would say. But it doesn't stay in the mind - because the characters are two-dimensional, the plot is contrived (which would have been okay if the characters were sketeched out well), and Jones tries a little too hard - he so much wants not to be the outsider, and he so wants us to like the characters that the effort is what shows up throughout. Not much in terms of results.
 Is there anyone in the world whose favorite Dickens is not Great Expectations? Really?