Bringing Great Expectations to desperate children ravaged by revolution, an eccentric teacher becomes a martyr to literature and transforms the prospects of a strong-willed girl.
He’s actually “Mr. Watts.” But so identified does he become with Dickens’ wondrous coming-of-age narrative that he’s known as “Mr. Pip.” Jones (Paint Your Wife, 2004, etc.) juxtaposes this English exile, married to a native black woman and now the last white man on an unspecified Survivor-style island, with teenaged Matilda, his most eager student. He’s a stopgap professor, really, just volunteering to instruct 20 kids, seven to 15 years old, who gather for shelter from the war between the “redskins” and the “rebels.” A long-bearded Scheherazade in a white linen suit, Watts draws out the telling of Dickens’ classic to the children and soon we have the age-old tale: story as balm, spell, savior. He also invites the island mothers in for show ‘n’ tell: chances to share their wisdom. They offer fishing tips; rhapsodies of the sea; and one tells of a woman who “once turned a white man into marmalade and spread him onto her toast.” That tale spinner is Matilda’s mother, and she becomes Watts’s rival, her pidgin Bible contrasting his Victorian tale; she is imperiled nature; he’s threatening culture. He reminisces about “the smell of fresh-mown grass and lawnmower oil”; she fears the capture of her daughter’s soul. And yet in time, for Matilda’s sake, the pair negotiate a tremulous peace—one soon savaged by murder, as the redskins descend. As the revolution intensifies, the schoolhouse burns, along with Great Expectations. And Watts’s last injunction to his students is that they rebuild the story orally, for themselves, piece by piece.
A little Gauguin, a bit of Lord Jim, the novel’s lyricism evokes great beauty and great pain.