2009, 299 p.
Set in 1965, this book opens with a dilemma. Charlie Bucktin, the bookish, nerdy, teacher’s son is startled by a knock at the louvres of his sleep-out when Jasper Jones, the town ‘bad boy’, calls him out into the backyard. Somehow or other Jasper Jones cajoles him into assisting with the disposal of the body of a young school acquaintance that Jasper found hanging from a tree in his special place in the bush. This young girl was Jasper’s secret girlfriend and Jasper is terrified that he will be blamed for her murder. For me, one of the main problems with this book started at this point: I just didn’t buy into Charlie’s involvement and why two innocent boys would dispose of the body. Hence, the whole premise of the plot was shaky for me as a reader.
For me, the book didn’t start well. It took almost 25 pages for young Charlie to be faced with his opening dilemma. The book then spooled into an equally long conversation between Charlie and his Vietnamese friend Jeffrey about the respective qualities of superheroes. There is a self-indulgence about the length of these digressions and internal dialogues, and an indulgence too in the number of themes the author crams into the book: first love, friendship, bullying, police brutality, racial prejudice, marriage breakup, incest, youth suicide, social exclusion.
As if this wasn’t enough (and it is!) the book is framed within a homage to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. This, too, is rather heavy-handed. We have the hermit misfit, the childhood taunts and dares about ‘raiding’ his house, the trips through the forest at night (albeit, not dressed as a ham) and the revelation of a mild father standing up to a bully, evoking Atticus shooting the rabid dog.
All of this suggests to me a lack of good editting in curbing an energetic young author. And he IS young- his Wikipedia entry claims that Craig Silvey was born in 1982. At this point, though, I have to doff my hat. He is writing about small town life set 17 years before he was even born and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. He captures beautifully a world where television was incidental, where kids’ consumerism was limited by pocket money, where community events were not so strictly segregated and segmented by age brackets and where kids had a wider geographic zone not necessarily under the constant surveillance of their parents. He portrays well the anxiety about disappearing children and the perceived, if brittle, authority of community figures like mayors and police officers. There must have been careful research here and the book carries it effortlessly.
I’d be really interested to know how readers much younger than I respond to this book. It would lend itself well to film, and the coming-of-age aspect and the nostalgia for a simpler time would endear it to baby-boomer viewers- in fact, possibly more than to the young adolescent readers for whom it was probably written.