“You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”
Matilda is a headstrong intelligent girl rebelling against her conservative mother in the absence of her working father, making and losing friends in the village and courting the favour of her teacher by throwing herself headlong into a fictional world. So far, so coming-of-age story. Except Matilda lives on “the island” (Bougainville), and the “redskins” and the “rambos” are fighting for independence and Matilda’s village has been cut off from the rest of the world for a few years. Surrounded by chaos, Matilda is entranced by her teacher’s reading of Great Expectations.
The infatuation with Dickens’ Victorian England, with Pip, the loyalty to whom exceeds all reason and some sanity, the jealousy of Estella, is both cute and satisfying. Matilda is transfixed by this other world, the idea of a frosty morning, the idea of London, when she knows nothing more than her tropical cul-de-sac. She takes ownership of Pip fiercely, passionately. But I think all avid readers like to see reading and literature worshipped; a validation of our own addiction. And so I loved Matilda for her need of the story, her yearning for the next chapter.
Jones has written amazing characters in this novel. Mr Watts the stranded white man, displaying public and private loyalty to his mad wife, earning the derision of the villagers. Mr Watts the teacher, stepping in when the government teachers were extracted to safety, teaching the one text he knew and loved and happened to have with him. Mr Watts the peacemaker, keeping the rambos occupied with fireside stories from his early life to keep the fragile calm intact.
Dolores* tries to hold her life together with both hands, to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow, and isn’t afraid to storm into the classroom and tell tales of witches and devils to counteract Mr Watts and his apathetic atheism. She is stubbornly faithful to all she holds dear, even at exceptional personal cost.
Susan Lyons reads this exceptionally – a quiet Pacific island accent for Matilda, a much stronger one for Dolores, and shades of Australian when needed. I assume Lyons is Australian although you wouldn’t know it from the consistency of Matilda’s voice.
Definitely, definitely recommended. Beware the sudden violence about 75% of the way through though.
*I can’t ever write or say the word “Dolores” without thinking it should be followed by “Landingham”, after President Bartlet’s beloved executive assistant in West Wing.
audio edition, narrated by Susan Lyons, borrowed from the library. To order from Amazon through an affiliate link from which I will earn a few pennies towards this site, click here