Genre: Historical Fiction
Author: Craig Silvey
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Press Year: 2009
It’s 1965. Charlie Bucktin lies safe in his room where there is a knock at his window. An indigenous teenage boy is there, with a secret. They steal into the night, and the boy shows Charlie just what he is hiding- a young, beautiful girl is in a secret grotto, hanging from her neck.
This grizzly scene is what Craig Silvey confront his reader with just 3 pages into his novel Jasper Jones, a book that is itself one of those fascinating creatures you can’t pull your eyes away from. It’s hauntingly, disturbingly, hideously beautiful; a horrifying roller-coaster that grabs you from the throat right at the beginning and refuses to lesson it’s grip.
The novel is told from the perspective of Charlie Bucktin from Corrigan, a fictional hick-town in Western Australia. His perspective guides the mystery from the first scene where the boy of the novel’s namesake barges into Charlie’s life with an uncomfortable secret, when he discovers the mysterious death of Laura Wishart.
Laura’s death isn’t the only mystery here because the notorious Jasper Jones isn’t Charlie’s friend but an almost town myth: a “half-caste” delinquent whom entire small country town have turned against, just as notorious as Corrigan’s own Boo Radley, Mad Jack Lionel.
It is for this reason that the plot thickens. Jasper convinces Charlie that if they tell the police about Laura’s body, they’ll blame him without a second thought. Instead, the boys hide the girl and seek to uncover the mystery themselves: made all the more emotional for Charlie who is in love with Laura’s younger sister Eliza.
Jasper Jones is a historical fiction and interweaves several plotlines around the central one. Right from this disturbing introduction the stories are full of dark topic matter: incest, abuse, racial discrimination, suicide and adultery. But these topics are done with the kind of delicacy that doesn’t make it seem like a burden. Silvey doesn’t harp on these moments of drama, instead the tragedies are left to simply hang as they would in life, to describe an Australia on the outskirts both morally and geographically.
But the novel also isn’t all doom and gloom. Silvey’s characters are young and so he uses the kind of humour that only children can have in times of despair to his advantage. It’s never black, it’s never sarcastic- it’s fun, lighthearted, witty and incessantly intelligent. This provides great moments for Silvey to show off a little, and the prose is riddled with literary intertextuality from Batman to Capote.
Most of this comes from Charlie’s best friend, the Vietnamese Jeffery Lu. Silvey could have reduced Jeffery to a comedic sidekick but instead, Jeffery and the rest of his family are given substance by being the point of tension in the small rural community. Their presence serves to show the reactions of white Australia to the Vietnamese in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Jasper Jones is not without its flaws. There are times where the witty banter between Charlie and Jeffery is so hideously overdrawn that you stop paying attention to it entirely. And the sheer impossibility of Jasper Jones’s quick-sticks friendship with Charlie is an oversight that Silvey never really aims to correct. But the novel is so compelling and rich that you forget these tiny oversights, and become entrapped in whatever Silvey wants to tell you next.
All of this pulls you into a poignant ending where all the teens lie in the grass after the impossibility of what they’ve just faced, and stare up into the moonlight in a silent vigil.
It is these kind of moments that make you realize that Jasper Jones is not a gem of a novel: it is a seed, not unlike a peach pit stolen by the boys of Corrigan from Mad Jack Lionel’s yard. It is warm, spawn from the fruits of books before it and full of sentimentality beyond its years.