Jasper JonesI never would have thought I’d read Jasper Jones. It’s just not my thing. I don’t like the cover (a photograph of a boy making it, to my mind, look like a children’s book), it’s set in a small mining town in Western Australia (country Australia doesn’t usually interest me), and it has in-depth descriptions of cricket (the world’s most boring sport). Jasper Jones recently made ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club’s 10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die list but given that I don’t normally pay the show much attention anyway, that wouldn’t have been enough to convince me (in fact the judging panel were divided over its inclusion). But I was told by a friend that it is a brilliant book. I was looking to try something a bit more grounded and real, perhaps a bit outside my comfort zone (which funnily enough led me to read a book that seems to be in everyone else’s). Especially after the madness of Kraken, Jasper Jones seemed the right fit.

The plot is relatively sparse. In the summer of 1965, teenage town bad seed and scapegoat Jasper finds a girl dead, strung up in a tree and beaten, and knows he will be held responsible. He goes to Charlie Bucktin for help, the secret creating a close friendship. The rest of the novel is about Charlie dealing with his guilt at covering up a murder, and experiencing his first love, while sometimes trying to find out how Laura Wishart died. Craig Silvey does sometimes go to easy places, plot-wise, but I don’t know that solving the mystery is truly the point.

Jasper Jones has wonderful characters and pitch-perfect dialogue. It’s much like an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps a little too much. But I was far from disappointed. It does have the Australianisms and aforementioned cricket sequences I was afraid of, but it’s a heartfelt book. The dialogue is a wonder (the conversations between thirteen year-olds Jeffrey Lu and Charlie in particular, they drift from the Vietnam War to which superhero is best, with depth and insight). Silvey’s protagonists are imbued with a beguiling sense of innocence and wisdom. About Jeffrey, Silvey says, ‘I think Jeffrey might well be my proudest literary creation.’ I haven’t read anything else he’s written but I loved Jeffrey so much I can’t argue with that statement. Every hero needs a best friend to steer and cajole them and Jeffrey is tenacious and spirited, without being cloying, contrasting beautifully with the careworn melancholy of Charlie’s young love, Eliza.

When I read the blurb, Jasper Jones reminded me of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Two young boys from different worlds dealing with secrets, a missing girl, racial tension, first love, and small town life in decades past, but one takes place in Western Australia, the other in Mississippi. Craig Silvey has always been attracted to Southern Gothic fiction:

There’s something very warm and generous about those regional American writers like Twain and Lee and Capote, and it seemed to be a literary ilk that would lend itself well to the Australian condition.

I’d never thought of that before but he’s absolutely right. I’m a bit ashamed that perhaps my cultural cringe blinded me to it. I’ll admit I’m often affected by the idea that other countries and cultures are more exotic and exciting than my own. However, even after adjusting for that phenomenon I still did enjoy Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter more than Silvey’s novel. Harkening back to another country’s literary traditions is great, blending cultures, blurring boundaries and whatnot, but at the same time it’s nice when we can create our own.

Jasper Jones made me smile. Silvey has an amazingly deft touch when it comes to dialogue and poignant portrayals of youth. It’s a lovely book, not groundbreaking, especially its conscious mirroring of To Kill a Mockingbird (right down to the Boo Radley-like neighbour, Mad Jack Lionel) but undoubtedly lovely.