May 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Jasper Jones: A Novel’ by Craig Silvey

By Michael Williams

Publisher hyperbole can be off-putting - rarely more so than when it takes the overblown-comparison route. Wariness seems in order when Craig Silvey's publisher suggests that Jasper Jones, Silvey's second novel, is an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird.

To 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, the mining town of Corrigan is populated by barnacles: "hard shells that ... clench themselves shut and choose not to know" about the outside world. It is 1965, and the insularity of rural Western Australia is an oddly neat setting for a story that aligns itself with an American literary tradition. Charlie is lured by the promise of adventure when the town troublemaker, Jasper Jones, comes to his window one night and asks for help. At the other end of a trek through the sleeping town lies a secret that is adult and painful.

Silvey, whose 2004 novel, Rhubarb, deserved the plaudits it received, understands the difficulty of balancing adult storytelling and adolescent protagonists. Jasper Jones is a well-paced, eminently readable bildungsroman, complete with social commentary, a dab of racism and a distant but morally righteous parent. Silvey knows and proudly identifies his literary antecedents, frequently citing Harper Lee, as well as Twain and Faulkner. The prejudice against Jasper - "half-caste" and outcast - the role of class, and the relationship between the distant Vietnam War and the town's Vietnamese family are all sketched with confidence and grace.

The prose is at times a little forced, the plotting and characterisation occasionally clichéd; but none of that matters. If we see a more entertaining, more heartfelt piece of Australian literature in the next 12 months it will be a rare year indeed. Amid the glimpses of small-town bigotry and adult compromise, Jasper Jones offers tender moments of adolescent romance and irresistible vignettes of friendship and quiet triumph. The exultation contained in the description of a cricket game featuring Charlie's irrepressible best friend ("Jeffrey Lu on debut") is enough alone to earn this book sentimental-classic status.

Unlike Atticus Finch, who embodied Justice, Charlie Bucktin's father embodies the virtues of Literature: Wes Bucktin understands the enduring power - good and bad - of stories. So does his creator. With this singular novel Silvey confirms his place as a young writer to watch. In all important respects Jasper Jones is an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird.

'Jasper Jones: A Novel' by Craig Silvey, Allen and Unwin; RRP $29.99
Cover: May 2009
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