Archives for posts with tag: Southern Gothic

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.

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I don’t usually read a lot of crime fiction. It’s not that I have anything against crime, I just like to wait until I find a superlative example of the genre. I love books like Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. It’s just that so many crime authors have about twenty books to their name, often featuring the author’s signature protagonist, in the same setting time after time. It doesn’t inspire hope in me that any of them will be original or unique. So after finding Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on a couple of best crime books of 2011 lists it seemed like a good book to start my quest for an exceptional crime offering.

In the small town of Chabot, Mississippi college student Tina Rutherford has gone missing, reminding everyone of the decades-earlier disappearance of teenager Cindy Walker. The number one suspect in the Walker case was, then-teenager, Larry Ott. Now a grown man, Larry was never arrested but has lived his life as a recluse, shunned by a town that never stopped believing he was guilty. The townspeople and local law enforcement are quick to assume that Larry is behind Tina’s disappearance as well, even when Larry is found shot in his home. As Silas Jones, Constable of Chabot, investigates the missing girl and Larry’s shooting both men remember their childhood friendship and the secrets they’ve both kept all these years.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter revolves around the past and its impact on the present. There’s nostalgia for a time before Cindy’s disappearance, before youthful choices came to define Silas and Larry’s lives. But even that childhood innocence was tainted by the lives of adults around them. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a brilliant meditation on courage and weakness, and the way memories are twisted by time. Franklin explores regret, isolation and shame through his elegiac portrait of Mississippi and the friendship between two boys, one black, and one white: headstrong, independent Silas and lonely, bookish Larry.

If you’re expecting an action-packed crime thriller you’ll probably be disappointed. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a more nuanced work, the mystery crackles quietly but intensely. I was impressed by the depth of emotion Franklin brings to the story. It’s far more than your average crime novel. Yes, murder and kidnapping serve as the impetus behind the plot but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter never feels confined or defined by its genre trappings. The pacing is excellent. Strands of narrative gradually come together, and relationships are revealed, all carefully building to its thrilling conclusion.

The novel moves between the present day kidnapping investigation and Silas and Larry’s boyhood memories. The recollections of the past are a real strength of the book. Even when exploring the boys’ youth Franklin maintains that delicate note of brooding menace that should be present when the reader already knows what the future has in store. Franklin wonderfully captures the sound and feel of the American South, at least in the opinion of someone who’s never been anywhere near. His writing isn’t heavy on description, but the little details he adds (Larry’s ‘father sat sipping his beer in his socks’) create an intimacy that brings the scene to life, without it becoming the focus. And the dialogue is rich and vibrant.

Thematically, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has more than a bit in common with the Booker prize shortlisted Snowdrops. Both deal with past wrongs, questions of morality and newfound self-awareness, but in very different ways, and yet one reminded me of the other. While I was reading I couldn’t help comparing the two, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is far more convincing and has more impact than Snowdrops could ever hope for. Franklin’s ability to create wonderfully rendered, memorable characters and impeccable dialogue makes Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a powerful mystery that stands out from its rivals.