Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey


6a00d83451bcff69e2017ee908e15b970dI put this book on my to-read list when I read about it on Whispering Gums and found that it was available in our public library here in Virginia. I had misgivings about reading yet another book written in the voice of a teenage boy (the two I read in January were excellent, but they do seem to have an overwhelming interest in beer). But it is Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month, so that clinched it. Had I read Reading Matters’ review or the one by AnzLitlovers, I would have skipped it.

I think I read that it was assigned reading in middle or high schools (did I make that up?), and the book did seem to be written with certain strong messages in mind. The story begins with Jasper Jones, the town outcast tapping on the window of a nerdy, glasses-wearing kid (our narrator Charlie Bucktin), seeking help in a terrible crisis. And thus begins a miserable summer when the little town copes with this crisis, Charlie falls in 13-year-old love, and his family falls apart.

One message is that Charlie is a reader and draws lessons from the likes of Mark Twain and wonders what Atticus Finch would do. He quotes Twain: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear.” And in support of that idea, he champions Batman, a (sort of) ordinary guy, over Superman, who can do anything. I like that one.

Charlie’s best friend is Jeffrey Lu whose Vietnamese family immigrated to the town because of the war (the book is set in the mid-60s). Jeffrey, a small but phenomenal cricket player, is excluded from the team, but perseveres and eventually triumphs. His family is nevertheless attacked by an ignorant gang who are repelled by the neighbors, led by Charlie’s father. Then there’s the racism against Jasper whose mother was Aboriginal.

This is a book filled with horror stories: the terrible event that Charlie is called on to help with, then he spends an afternoon in the library reading about such unspeakable crimes as an extended torture and murder of a teenage girl in Indiana, the killings by the Nedlands Monster in Perth, and others. Yikes. Don’t like to think about that message.

The writing is repetitive and hammers certain phrases over and over and the messages are delivered without much subtlety. This was a book for teenagers, not me. I wrote this on the day Boston was shut down for a massive manhunt for a teenage boy known among his high school friends as a lovable accomplished kid. Now his monstrous deeds define him and devastate us.

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones, 2009, 310 pages.

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