By Craig Silver
Allen & Unwin, $35
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
Loss of innocence is a common theme in fiction but Aussie writer Craig Silvey gives the old chestnut an impressive roasting in his second novel, Jasper Jones. Set in the summer of 1965, it’s the story of a sensitive, bookish teenager, Charlie Bucktin, growing up in a small Western Australian mining town. His life has been unremarkable until one night when Jasper Jones knocks on his bedroom window. Jasper is the town bad boy, mixed race and a loner. He gets the blame for every petty crime and misdemeanour. And he knocks on Charlie’s window because he’s made a horrific discovery, his girlfriend Laura Wishart hanging by her neck from a tree in the bushy glade where he has his secret den. Jasper needs Charlie’s help to hide the body and find the real killer before the finger his pointed his way.
From that moment on nothing about Charlie’s life or the town he lives in seems the same. People he once looked up to turn out to have darker sides, family relationships are more complicated, the faraway Vietnam war begins to intrude, good and bad no longer seem so straightforward.
This book is already being compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Silvey even references that classic in the text, with Charlie wondering what Atticus Finch might do in the circumstances. The author admits to drawing on the Southern Gothic tradition and being inspired by American writers like Mark Twain. But Jasper Jones is far from being a pale Australian imitation.
One of its joys is the humour that runs through it, particularly the dialogue between Charlie and his cricket-mad Vietnamese best friend Jeffrey Lu which is laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. And the scenes where Charlie takes his first awkward steps towards love are written with truth and tenderness.
Clearly Silvey is a prodigiously talented writer. He completed his first novel, Rhubarb, when he was just 19 and this follow up is just as bittersweet, wise and wonderful. It’s one of those stories with wide appeal and anyone, from a teenage boy to a book club member, will find something here that resonates.
Unpretentious and powerful, this is a story that reaches out and grabs you.