Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 304 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Oh dear. I’ve read a string of rather mediocre books recently and, sadly, this one falls into that category too.
Jasper Jones has only just been published in the UK, but it’s been out in Australia for six months or so and garnered plenty of critical and commercial acclaim. Indeed it’s been named on this year’s shortlist of Australia’s prestigious fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which should give some indication of its literary merit. However, in my view, it’s far from being anything other than fairly ordinary.
The book is set in a Western Australian mining town in the 1960s in the summer which opens with Doug Walters’ test cricket debut, in which he scored a century against England, and the disappearance of the Beaumont children at Glenelg Beach on Australia Day in 1966. In the six weeks or so between these two pivotal events in Australian history, 13-year-old Charlie Buckton gets caught up in a pivotal event of his own.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he gets carolled by the town’s teenage outcast, Jasper Jones, into hiding the body of a girl who has been found hanging from a tree. Jasper, who is half Aboriginal and likes a whisky or two, is such a bad boy he believes that he will be blamed for the girl’s death, hence the desperate need to get rid of the “evidence”. Why Charlie gets roped into it is never made entirely clear, but it sets up the premise for the rest of the book in which Charlie’s summer is plagued by the very real fear that his involvement in the crime will be discovered.
I suppose you could call this a coming-of-age story, because it charts Charlie’s last not-quite carefree summer as a child on the cusp of becoming an adolescent. He spends most of his time hanging out with his friend, Jeffrey Lu, falling in love with Eliza Wishart, and avoiding the wrath of his mother.
But while Silvey paints a convincing portrait of a teenage boy coming to terms with his loss of innocence, he is far less convincing on so many other fronts. The prose style is overly verbose, to the point of being over-written, and the broad brush stroke references to racism in a small town (as a consequence of the Vietnam war), just seem trite. (I’m reminded of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, which referred to asylum seekers in Britain in a similar manner.) And it doesn’t help that Charlie and Jeffrey feel too contemporary to be living in the mid 1960s. I mean, what kids back then made jokes about “coming out”? I’m not even sure that phrase was in use in 1965 (although I’m willing to be corrected).
I’m slightly puzzled as to why this book has received so many glowing reviews. Yes, it’s a nice story and there’s a real urgency to the first couple of chapters. Yes, the camaraderie and banter between Charlie and Jeffrey is deliciously funny if somewhat cheesy and peurile. And yes, there’s a stand-out description of a local cricket match in which Jeffrey plays a star role.
But on the whole I found the book slightly wearisome and most of the scenes felt forced and contrived. It’s almost like Silvey modelled his style on Bryce Courtenay after watching reruns of the Wonder Years. Throwing in a few topical issues, such as racism, just hammers home the point that this book is simply trying too hard on so many different levels. What were the Miles Franklin judges thinking?