The inhabitants of Bougainville are already feeling the effects of war. Trying to preserve a sense of normalcy for their children, the local parents prevail on the introverted Mr. Watts to reopen the ramshackle school on the island. Faced with a room full of young, eager faces, Watts chooses to share his favourite novel Great Expectations with them, reading them one chapter a day — and inspiring the children to make spirited comparisons between Pip's tribulations and their own.
It is the bright and lonely Matilda, however, who finds emotional refuge and support in both Pip's adventures and her growing attachment to Mr. Watts. But the realities of war soon intrude, as a destructive visit by rebel soldiers is followed by the arrival of the ruling army, which crashes into Bougainville looking for spies. Mistaking an innocent message from Matilda to "Pip" as evidence of rebel activity, the army takes a violent, shocking revenge on the residents of Bougainville, forever altering Matilda's life and her fragile understanding of the world.