What the Dickens

Mister Pip

by Lloyd Jones

John Murray, 219pp, 12.99

NEW ZEALANDER LLOYD JONES has written eight books. This is his first to be published in Britain, having won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. You can understand its appeal. Here is a novel that, with amplitude and ease, affirms the acts of reading and writing as precious pursuits, as acts of survival, escape, renewal; as something wondrous, comforting - dangerous.

A novel, Mister Pip hints, should carry a warning on its cover, along the lines of: "This book could easily do you harm - if it's any good it might cause your death." It might also conceivably save your life. Mister Pip is a book about a book that achieves both outcomes. Great Expectations, Dickens's masterpiece, is central to the plot.

The offshore Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville is its setting. The year is 1991 and a civil war between "the redskins" (PNG government forces) and the rebels is causing turmoil and anxiety across the island.

Mostly, the men have left their villages to take sides; a few find work in the faraway Solomon Islands or Australia. The self-exiled father of Matilda, the story's narrator (aged 13 when the tale begins), has flown to Queensland, leaving Matilda and her mother, the troubled, highly religious Dolores, abandoned and bereft.

Nothing is safe anymore, or dependable. Warrior redskins drop in from the sky, their thundering helicopters putting the village to flight. At times the rebels step like spectres from the forest. Normal life is a thing of memory. Then Mr Watts, the village's solitary white man, steps centre stage. His plan is simple - to open the school, inviting the children to re-enrol, to be introduced to his "Mr Dickens".

Bougainville is Eden, albeit a spoiled one, and Mr Watts is its tree of knowledge, introducing the eager children, especially Matilda, to the Victorian underworld of Magwitch, Pip and Miss Havisham, to ideas of betrayal, threat and exile, of second chances, the meaning of home. Through his inspired readings, the book seeds and grows in the children's imaginations and touches their hearts. It is Watts's compass, his secular bible.

Matilda remembers all this from adulthood. From exile. She paints a picture of Watts's nobility as he struggles to care for his wife, the dying Grace. Matilda's voice is clear and affecting. What emerges is a reading of Great Expectations that lifts the children beyond the reach of the warring tribesmen. It's Watts's gift to them, and in a sense it's his own liberation. For he identifies so strongly with Dickens's great work that when the warriors ask who he is, he claims he is Dickens and, later, Pip.

The children hearing these claims are puzzled, yet don't contradict him. A second moral complication derives from the novel itself being stolen from the schoolroom. Matilda discovers the thief's identity, instigating a personal crisis: whether to tell? Her decision unleashes a chain of catastrophic consequences, the darkest of which marks the book's watershed, the start of a second life, a second story, both lighter and darker.

Jones is courageous in making the switch. His initial story is inspiring, not least when the children attempt to recover the stolen book by piecing together fragments of text dredged up from memory - a collective act of devotion.

He ushers Matilda into a search for her identity, and that of the enigmatic Mr Watts. She discovers more than she ever imagined. In the novel's less gripping, and much less dramatic conclusion, she visits London, goes to Rochester, Dickens's stamping ground, and finds that he isn't there as he had been in Bougainville, her home.

Her quest for her father is equally thwarted. She leaves us, poised to write her story - the book we have just finished - a further proof of the power of storytelling with all its concomitant parallels and touchstones.

The book is front-end heavy, yet it sticks; somehow it makes you just as tipsy as you need to be to love it - just as tipsy as it is.