Described as the Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones is astute, witty, wise and a beautifully written coming-of-age story.
Opening at the tail end of 1965, bookish 13 year-old Charlie is disturbed late one night by Jasper Jones.
Just one year older, there are light years between the two boys. Solitary, rebellious, mixed-race, Jasper is an outcast in the (fictional) Western Australian mining town of Corrigan. His reputation precedes him.
With a mix of awe and fear, desperate to impress, Charlie responds to the older boy’s call for help. It is the end of his innocence as Jasper leads him to a hidden glade a little way out of town and reveals a terrible secret.
“I’m excited but afraid. I long to turn and wedge myself through the horse’s arse from which I’ve just fallen, to sit safe in the hot womb of my room. But this is Jasper Jones, and he has come to me.”
A secret not to be shared
Charlie must now carry the heavy burden as the town simmers in the almost unbearable summer heat. Tensions are running high with the disappearance of Laura Wisehart, the mayor’s daughter, in an already volatile atmosphere with the loss of jobs at the local mine and the unpopular war in Vietnam that has resulted in the deaths of conscripted Australian soldiers.
He’s not a brave boy, Charlie, preferring the safety of his books. But even home life is far from serene with his tempestuous and temperamental mother. Dissatisfied with a small town existence and lack of ambition of her teacher husband, frustrations are reaching boiling point. The young teenager therefore prefers to lock himself away than deal with the simmering tension between the adults and a constantly angry mother.
Only Charlie’s diminutive best mate, Jeffrey Lu, seems to be oblivious to all around him. Thick-skinned to the racist taunts, Jeffrey is out to prove that he’s the best cricketer in town. He is – by a very long way. But a Vietnamese teenager receives no favours or chances in this town.
And then there’s Eliza, Laura’s sister and the object of Charlie’s affections. But his secret involves Laura… Yet it appears that Eliza has something to tell him.
Winner of the 2009 Indie Book of the Year, the 2009 Western Australia Premier’s Award and the 2010 Australian Book Industry Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC DUBLIN award, Jasper Jones is just one of those books almost impossible to put down. An Australian Southern Gothic novel (Charlie is reading Mark Twain), the heat is real, the cicadas loud as the tension builds.
Jasper, Charlie, Jeffrey – they’re all outcasts. And whilst the secret cannot be revealed, Jeffrey remains an integral part of the hidden truth. None of the boys are accepted by the white supremacist townsfolk, yet little is as it appears. Not the mayor, not the chief of police. Jasper’s bruises support that.
Author Craig Silvey is a master storyteller, a wonderful creator of characters and a cracking good writer of dialogue. Engrossing and enthralling, it’s a book that will make you laugh – the friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey is at once moving as it is, at times, hilarious – as well as make you angry. This is small town Australia in the 1960s with its share of town bullies and racism.
But Jasper Jones is also one of those incredibly rare, beautifully written books that, having finished reading it, you suddenly realise there’s no more to come.