Jasper Jones (by Craig Silvey)

25 03 2012

The smoldering hotness of much of the Australian outback surely has an effect on its writing populace if Melina Marchetta and Craig Silvey are any indication at all. The striking thing about both of these authors is the authenticity in voice and the utter believability of the characters portrayed.

In the case of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, the authentic voices are those of 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin and his (Vietnamese) friend Jeffrey Lu, during the hot summer of 1965, when both of them are at the threshold of becoming men yet aren’t quite as brazen yet and still behave like the boys they secretly still long to be. Charlie, though, finds out he might have to grow into adulthood a bit more quickly than anticipated, as he’s confronted with his very own Stand By Me-style rite of passage. One evening, the town’s scapegoat, Jasper Jones – who Charlie hasn’t even spoken to before – is at Charlie’s window, urging him to come with him. Jasper leads him to his sanctuary where he has found the body of a town girl, Laura Wishart. Jasper asks for Charlie’s help, because they know that Jasper, “Thief, Liar, Thug, Truant” will be blamed for Laura’s death.

Though the blurb and the initial couple of pages may make you think that this is mystery novel, with Jasper and Charlie trying to find out what really happened to Laura Wishart, the investigation is not at the heart of this well-written novel. Charlie is a bookish boy, your typical unlikely YA hero, whose best friend is another outcast – Jeffrey is the son of a Vietnamese refugee – and who gets approached by the mixed-race devil-do-all Jasper Jones. So this book is as much about dealing with differences and the tensions that arise when one doesn’t fully understand the other person, than it is about trying to find whodunit. At the same time the small town of Corrigan and one of Australia’s favorite pastimes – cricket – are almost used as symbols to show what intolerance can lead to.

More than anything Jasper Jones is a character-driven novel where childhood meets adulthood, innocence meets guilt,  and truth meets prejudice. Though all of this may sound like a bleak story, there’s a delightfully humorous undercurrent (mostly through the banter between Charlie and Jeffrey) that makes Jasper Jones a very playful effort even at its darkest moments.

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