Jasper Jones Review and Reading Guide

It is 1965 and the sleepy innocence of Western Australia is being shaken by the Vietnam draft and Edgar Cooke’s murderous spree. Even the fictional, rural mining town of Corrigan is feeling the pinch with its young men being conscripted and upstart, slant-eyed migrants taking jobs that could go to hard drinking Australian blokes. When the fifteen year old daughter of the well heeled Shire President goes missing all eyes turn to Jasper Jones: the town’s mixed race bad boy and all purpose pariah.

Jasper is involved, but not in the murderous way surmised by the good people of Corrigan. In an attempt to get to the bottom of Laura’s disappearance Jasper enlists the help of local boy Charles Buktin. Thirteen year old Charlie is bookish and precocious and awed by the charismatic Jasper. He is also a coward and insectophobe who has to face his fear in order to act as Jasper’s sleuthing offsider. As the town goes into lockdown Charlie must navigate the ugly underbelly of small town racism, the frigid relationship between law and justice and the moral dichotomies of adulthood.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is. Silvey stares down comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird by openly inviting us to see the parallels between the two books. Charlie repeatedly casts himself as the Atticus Finch figure, assuming a logical cast of mind and a bravery he is far from genuinely feeling. When Charlie innocently uses the word ‘half caste’ his appalled father hands him a stack of southern US writers, Harper Lee amongst them, to read. There is a Boo Radley figure, a Truman Capote devotee and an effete father who astonishes his child by demonstrating his physical bravery (this last complete with ‘gnashing and barking’ dog just to make the parallel explicitly clear).

However, Silvey hasn’t faithfully shadowed Lee in terms of plot, like say On Beauty’s re-imagining of Howard’s End. Nor does he use the same narrative technique. Where Scout refracted through her cooler, wiser adult head, in Jasper Jones we see the story unfold as young Charlie lives it.

Nonetheless, it’s a bold move by Silvey to follow up Rhubarb with a story whose themes will inevitably invite comparison with a beloved classic but he handles it magnificently. Jasper is a rollickingly good read. The town of Corrigan feels palpably real with its slow summer afternoons, cricket games on the blazing asphalt, hunks of watermelon eaten on the back steps and the cloying familiarity of neighbours with each other’s business. One can really feel the chafing restrictions of small town mores in Charlie’s mother, Ruth, who is a provoking alloy of passive aggression, frustration and hypocrisy. The mystery of Laura’s disappearance unfolds at a clip and the dark, unsettling secret at the heart of her disappearance is sensitively handled.

Despite the title of the book, however, the emotional centre is not generated by the relationship between Charlie and Jasper but between Charlie and his best friend Jeffrey Lu. Like Jasper, Vietnamese Lu is a marginalised character by virtue of his ethnicity. But unlike Jasper who understands the role he has been cast in (pun intended) Jeffrey is blithe, innocent and utterly irrepressible. Despite repeated punches, dackings and taunts Jeffrey still runs in to join the cricket team at practice, confident that this time he’ll get an over in. The less sanguine Charlie watches from the sidelines thinking ‘He’s insane. Or he has no memory’. The diminutive Jeffrey is an absolute delight. The scene in which he finally gets a guernsey during Country Cricket Week was so nail biting I could hardly bring myself to read it. Go Jeffrey!

The banter between Jeffrey and Charlie is charming and funny, if at times straining credulity as the language of young teens and occasionally straying into anachronism. I pondered along with them: who was the greater out of Spiderman and Batman and if I had to choose would I go with a hat made of poisonous spiders or have penises for fingers? (For the record I went with the spiders). Jasper Jones is a charming, bittersweet coming of age tale.

Craig Silvey is currently in the UK for the overseas release of Jasper Jones but will be speaking to Gliterati on his return.Reading Guide v2

2 Responses to “Jasper Jones Review and Reading Guide”

  1. Liesel Von Murphy says:

    This book. Rocked. My. Socks. Right. Off. Nuff Said.

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