Set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, this book tells the story of a young girl, Matilda, who is 13 when we first meet her. The story takes places mostly in the 1990s, during the civil war and is narrated by Matilda.

Because of the civil war,[1] the school is closed. The Australians, who were mining copper on the island, leave, taking with them some of the local men, including Matilda’s father. The only white man left on the island is Mr. Watts, married to Grace, a local woman. He is nicknamed Pop Eye by the kids:

“He looked like someone who had seen or known great suffering and hadn’t been able to forget it. His large eyes in his large head stuck out further than anyone else’s—like they wanted to leave the surface of his face. … Pop Eye wore the same white linen suit every day. His trousers snagged on his bony knees in the sloppy heat. Some days he wore a clown’s nose. … We never saw him smile. And on those days he wore the clown’s nose you found yourself looking away because you never saw such sadness.”

Mr. Watts reopens the school, but he has only one book for the students: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Slowly, the children become immersed in this world that is completely different from theirs. They learn about new things like frost and lawyers. The book is an escape for Matilda, who becomes a little obsessed by it. Her staunchly Christian mother does not approve of this: she worries that the white man will pollute her daughter’s mind and show her a world that will always be out of her reach. She is also afraid of losing Matilda, who is growing away from her.

Meanwhile, many of the young boys in the village have run off to join the rebels. The redskins (PNG forces) come looking for them, and unable to find them, attack the village. After they leave, the villagers have to face the rebels, who come down from the mountains where they have been hiding. Mr. Watts’s beloved Grace dies, leaving him distraught with grief. But things are about to get a lot worse.

It takes a cataclysmic event for Matilda to leave the island and make a new life for herself. As an adult she tries to unravel the mystery that was Mr. Watt, also known to some as Mister Pip (the protagonist of Great Expectations).

I didn’t know much about the history of Papua New Guinea, so I found this book really interesting. I believed in Matilda: the yearning for something more, the ups and downs of adolescence and finally, the realization that there is much more to people than you think, and even the ones you think you know best can surprise you.

The book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, though: some of the violence is particularly brutal and hard to take. I enjoyed it, but it left me with a sadness for the senseless waste of life that wars result in.

[1] A note on the civil war: it was fought by the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) against the Papua New Guinea forces (known here as the redskins). But it was not so straightforward—the BRA also fought other armed groups on the island.