Bandkh's Reviews > Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
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Feb 16, 12

Recommended to Bandkh by: Book Club selection
Recommended for: Lovers of good stories which test the boundaries
Read in May, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1 but I will read it again!

** spoiler alert ** When I started reading Jasper Jones, I wondered what I was in for as I thought the subject matter was going to be heavy going. However, reading on, I was quickly hooked.

In “Jasper Jones”, Craig Silvey provides us with a forensic investigation of life within a small town community in Western Australia in the mid-1960’s, a time when the Vietnam war was in full swing and anything or anyone different was treated with suspicion and fear.

His elegant prose touches on serious issues such as racism, bigotry, adultery, lies, human weakness, trust, small-town boredom, bullying, loneliness, coming of age, hope, despair, long-kept secrets, incest and suicide. The characters are compelling and dialogue is credible though at times I found the repartee between Jeffrey Lu and Charlie a little contrived.

It is also unashamedly a book about books. Without wanting to make too lofty a statement, I think that those of us who have read throughout our lives may appreciate, as Charlie Bucktin does, the sustenance of the soul that comes with reading – and re-reading – favourite novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird (the themes of which resonates subtly throughout Jasper Jones) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These books are the emotional security blankets that nurture Charlie through his difficult time. Charlie even thinks of his Dad as an Atticus Finch doppelganger and true to this, Wes comes out swinging on the side of right when the Lu family bear the brunt of the town’s burgeoning anger over the escalating Vietnam War.

Jasper Jones is also a book about first love and the depth of friendship that can hold outsiders together when faced with adversity. I was really moved by the sense of innocence, wonder and tenderness as Charlie and Eliza exchange their first kiss on the hill at the Cricket Ground. Charlie thinks to himself that “not even Mark Twain could describe just how soft a girl’s lips are when they’re pressed to your own” – there’s that literary connection again!

However, for me, the depiction of the (mostly) marginalized characters is the strength of this novel. I empathized with Jasper Jones who, without cause but probably exacerbated by his mixed race heritage, the town has branded “‘a thief, a liar, a thug, a truant’. He justifiably believes that, with the discovery of the body of his secret girlfriend, Laura Wishart, he will be blamed for her murder. His belief is well founded as is evidenced again at the very end of the book where, on the burning of Eliza Wishart’s childhood home, the townspeople are speculating that the fire might have been the work of Jasper.

Jeffrey Lu is another delicious character. I loved his wit and his fierce intelligence but my heart ached for him. He accepted his place in the town but never stopped trying to be admitted into his beloved Cricket Team, bouncing back after each knock back until he finally succeeded in such a spectacular fashion that the town could no longer ignore him. He seemed to have strong role models in those of his parents and his relationship with his mum gave me quite a few laughs as she misconstrued his use of English.

My empathy for Charlie is perhaps a little more revealing as I related to him on a number of levels. I was an only child for the first 12 years of my life, a bookish kid, wearing glasses, not particularly sporty, sitting alone in my bedroom while my dysfunctional family disintegrated around me. I was lonely at times and can understand that Charlie’s need for acceptance led him to go with Jasper on that fateful night as I know that’s what I would have done. I would also have given almost anything to have a father like Wes, the aforementioned Atticus Finch wannabe, the quintessential father figure, a tower of strength, and the loving and wise parent. (This idyllic image was enhanced further, of course, when I first saw Gregory Peck as Atticus on screen.). But, enough about me. Charlie is racked with guilt and despair over his own actions as well as those of others, and he also articulates a poignancy and tenderness beyond his years on realising that he must confront his own dishonesty.

Wes, Charlie’s father is a quiet and reserved man, who introduces his son to the world of books while secretly scratching away a novel of his own, “Patterson’s Curse”. Wes is also Charlie’s ally against the spiteful vindictiveness of his mother, a cold and remote woman, caustic and unhappy with both her marriage and her life in a small town and who Charlie describes as having a glare that ‘could make a eunuch out of Errol Flynn’. The chapter where she made Charlie dig a hole for the sake of it and then fill it in again was awful but, living (as I do) with a teenage boy, I admit to empathizing with her frustration!

In fact, no character appears to be a comfortable insider in the town of Corrigan. While Jeffrey and Jasper are clearly marked as outsiders, discomfort and alienation visits almost everyone in the town. There is the mysterious Mad Jack Lionel, a seemingly dangerous ‘village idiot’ archetype who has a far more complex story to tell and is, in reality, simply a lonely old man wracked with guilt; Eliza Wishart, a girl Charlie falls in love with, who just can’t wait to defy her parents; and the local gang of teenage thugs, whose attempts to bully and humiliate Charlie and Jeffrey serve only to highlight their own marginality.

The themes raised in Jasper Jones are uncomfortable to read about but the way Craig Silvey has dealt with them is a testament to both the creative and intellectual range of this novel. Or to put it more simply, Jasper Jones contains a sharp and lively narrative drive found in all great storytelling, while inviting us to reflect more deeply on the qualities and flaws of the human condition. I loved it and heartily recommend it.
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