Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Review)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

What is is about coming-of-age novels? Why do we like to read them long after we’ve (hopefully) come of age ourselves? Is it because we like to compare our own experience with that of others? Whatever the reason, it is clear that we do like to read them because they sure keep being written and published. In my few months of blogging I have already written about two, and have now read another, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.

Like many, though not all, such novels, Jasper Jones has a first person narrator. It is set in a small country town in Western Australia in the late 1960s, and the protagonist, Charlie, is the nearly 14-year-old son of a high school literature teacher. He is a reader and therefore, almost by definition in the world of teenage boys, not “cool”. The book opens with the town’s bad-boy, Jasper Jones, knocking on his window in the middle of the night and, to Charlie’s surprise and delight, asking him for his help. The plot revolves around the shocking help that Jasper wants, how Charlie responds and the impact on him, his friends and family.

It is  a pretty dark and gritty story, and Silvey, mostly, controls it well, though there are times when he pushes the melodrama button a little too heavily. Silvey teases us at the beginning with the notion that the book will be a re-setting of Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird. There’s a death, an indigenous person likely to be blamed for it, a much maligned apparently “mad” person,  an apparently thoughtful and wise father AND Charlie’s own regular reference to the book and to how Atticus Finch might think in particular situations. However, fortunately I think, Silvey is a little more sophisticated a writer than that and Harper Lee’s book functions more as a frame for the story and the ideas being explored than as a direct model for the plot.

One of the things I like in the novel is the friendship between Charlie and his Vietnamese refugee school-mate, Jeffrey Lu. I’m not a teenage boy but I have known some in my time! The dialogue between the two boys rings pretty true – their puns, their ribbing of each other, their jokey arguments. True too is their uneven burgeoning interest in the opposite sex – Charlie is attracted to classmate Eliza Wishart  and to enjoying some “sassytime” with her, while Jeffrey’s focus is on making the town cricket team.

The novel is neatly plotted – and while some of it is predictable it is not all so. The fact that Charlie fears insects seems to be resolved when we discover that his love-interest Eliza has a similar fear – but it reappears again, cleverly, in the denouement. The story is well-paced, and it deals with a range of side issues, such as racism (against the Vietnamese refugee family, and the “half-caste” Jasper Jones), on top of the usual coming-of-age ones, such as loss of innocence (in several meanings of the word). Many of the characters could be seen as stereotyped – the “bastard” cricket coach who aligns himself with the “boorish” bully boys, and the cold-hearted status-seeking shire president, to name two – but most of them work despite this. Charlie’s mother though stretches the imagination a little too much: she has married down, she has been forced to live in a country town too small for her, and she has lost a child. This does seem a bit of overkill and the panning out of her part of the story feels a bit like one too many layers in the book.

One of the concepts that Charlie explores is that of “timing and chance”. He learns that despite your best laid plans, time and chance sometimes take over and there’s not much you can do about it. Another issue that runs through the book is that of reading, words and language. Early on Jasper Jones tells Charlie he trusts him because:

But I hope you might see things from my end. That’s what you do, right?  When you’re reading. You’re seeing what it’s like for other people.

With this coming near the beginning of the book, it’s not surprising that Charlie’s ability to empathise, to see things from other points of view, is pushed to the limits as the story progresses. Charlie, whose ambition is to be a writer, also learns about the limits of words, about when they are useful and when they are not, and about finding the right ones to use when they are.

There are many thematic and stylistic things that can be talked about in this book, making it a good one for discussion but, in the end, it is a fairly traditional coming-of-age story in its style, tone and structure. That said, if you like such stories, as I do, there’s a good chance you’ll find this a compelling and entertaining even if not a particularly challenging read. And is there anything wrong with that?

Craig Silvey
Jasper Jones
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009
ISBN: 9781741757743