April was the month of the Clarke Award, and completing the shortlist led me to read my favourite book of the month — Far North, Marcel Theroux‘s tale of survival in the aftermath of environmental change. I also read two great coming-of=age novels in April: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, set in 1960s Australia; and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, set in 1980s Kent. And, in terms of short stories, Sarah Singleton‘s tale ‘Death by Water’ from Black Static 15 was my pick of the month.
This is a story about growing up, but also one about stories: the stories we tell about people, and how the image held of a person in the mind’s eye may not be the truth of who they really are – or might be all the truth there is, as far as someone else is concerned.
The year is 1965; the place, Corrigan, a mining town in Western Australia. Charlie Bucktin is 13, a bookish, studious boy – which doesn’t make for an easy life amongst his peers, for whom sporting prowess is the key measure of status. One night, there is a knock on Charlie’s bedroom window; it’s Jasper Jones, the half-Aboriginal boy considered the town’s main troublemaker, asking for Charlie’s help.
Jasper leads Charlie to his secret clearing, where he has found the body of Laura Wishart, daughter of the shire president – hanging from the very rope Jasper uses to swing across the river, and about which nobody else is supposed to know. Jasper swears he had nothing to do with this, but is well aware that no one is likely to believe him; so he wants Charlie’s help in uncovering the truth (Jasper is convinced the culprit is Mad Jack Lionel, a bogeyman among Corrigan’s children, who lives alone in a cottage on the edge of town). So, Charlie becomes burdened with a dark secret he can’t disclose to anyone, and the problem of working out how he can talk again to Laura’s sister Eliza, on whom he has a crush.
There are two aspects of Jasper Jones that make it stand out as one of my favourite reads of the year so far. One is Craig Silvey’s skill with characterisation and dialogue. Charlie in particular leaps off the page as a character: a boy who finds that he’s suddenly lost part of his innocence about the world, and wishes desperately that he could have it back; whose frustrations that the world is unfair on other people have selfish undercurrents that Charlie might not care to acknowledge (and perhaps he doesn’t even realise they’re there); who knows he’ll take a beating from the bullies for being too clever, but continues to provoke them anyway, because it’s the only power he has. The banter between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu, is a delight to read; the flow of it rings absolutely true, to me – and the way Charlie gets tongue-tied when talking to Eliza Wishart is just as good.
The second aspect of Silvey’s novel that I particularly like goes back to what I said earlier about the images we have of people. Almost every character in the book has a story believed about them which is shown to be not quite the truth; even Charlie’s parents are different from the idea he had of them, so perhaps it’s no wonder that Jasper (of whom Charlie thinks he can see past the popular perception) comes to be such an anchor in his life. Over the course of the novel, we see how pernicious these myths about people can be (for example, Jeffrey may be a superb cricketer, but his Vietnamese family still face abuse), but also how they can change things for the better.
Jasper Jones is Craig Silvey’s second novel; it makes me keen to check out his first – and to recommend the present book to you.