‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

Jasper_jones

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?

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21 thoughts on “‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

  1. Sorry a dud but a good review anyhow. A bad string of books always makes the slump-ender a real gem. Btw I am really enjoying Thursday’s Child by Sonya Hartnett… I MUCH enjoy your reviews and your blog layout. As they say, keep up the good work.

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  2. Well you have done much better than me Kim, this is a book i have tried the first few chapters of and then… then… then… well gotten nowhere and I have tried three times to read on past the urgent opening pages but I end up just not caring and remembering why any book with the label ‘coming of age tale’ (which I think this one is getting) turns me off as a reader.

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  3. It took me three goes to read this too. In the end I forced myself to finish it on the basis that it might get better. I normally like coming-of-age tales but this one just did not work for me. I suspect teenagers/young readers will love it.

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  4. Hmm. I definitely liked it more than you, but I’m still trying to sort out my own thoughts on it a bit more before I argue my point. You can say one thing about this book – most disagreed upon this year! Always more interesting than when everyone loves it or everything thinks it was a dud.

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  5. I have been meaning to read this ever since I saw it was listed for the Miles Franklin but I have to admit it has never really appealed to me! I have read the first few pages just to get a feel for it and they haven’t really inspired me to go any further so from the sounds of your review this might not be good for me in terms of ever finishing it!!

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  6. Fortunately, I’ve read quite a few books since this one which were 100 times better!! Watch out for reviews coming soon.
    Glad you’re enjoying some Hartnett. I’ve not read Thursday’s Child. Is that one of her YA books?
    Thanks for your nice words about my blog, too. Always lovely to get some positive feedback.

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  7. Well, I’ve only seen one bad review about this book (Lisa from ANZ Litlovers), and everyone else has just raved about it. I’ve even heard ridiculous comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I mean, really??
    I will say this about it though: it does show Silvey’s potential as a writer. He’s definitely worth watching, but I don’t think this is the masterpiece its shortlisting might suggest.

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  8. I really enjoyed the first bit of the book, but then it lost momentum and it took me several goes to finish it. This is never a good sign.

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  9. I liked the beginning too – and would give it around 3 stars but I am generally a generous marker! I thought the rel between Charlie and his friend were the strength BUT I did think it was over the top with just too many things thrown in there. I am rather surprised at the Miles Franklin nomination too.

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  10. The nomination is interesting, isn’t it? I can see that As I said to Liji above, Silvey has great potential, but I’m not sure this book is his masterpiece…

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  11. I got one-third of the way through this novel and couldn’t go on I’m afraid. For much the same reasons as you- the overwriting really got to me. It felt to me like two different novels- a thriller about the murder etc and the YA novel, which as you say, had its good aspects- but I noticed the not-quite- 1960s vernacular creeping in too!
    I’m off to start ‘The Unnamed’ instead. Another that has been overhyped but let’s hope that this time it lives up to it!

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  12. Comparing recent Australian coming of age novels: Peter Goldsworthy’s Everything I Knew is streets ahead of Jasper Jones:a novel. The eponymous Jasper Jones is not even made credible as an anti-hero. He’s simply a f*ed up indigenous adolescent boy who the townspeople and law of Corrigan use as a scapegoat (scratch the surface and what’s changed except for PC attitudes).
    Everything I knew is truly provocative without trying so hard as Jasper Jones: a novel, does to evoke every aspect of country town Australia in the Sixties, thereby spreading the believability of its characters far too thinly

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  13. Thanks for the tip-off about Goldsworthy’s book. I read his Three Dog Night earlier in the year and found it a bit wanting, but am prepared to give him another go, especially as I have such fond memories of reading Honk if you are Jesus about 20 years ago!

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  14. Man, you totally missed the point of the book. It’s more about what’s hidden between the lines and the style/ techniques. It’s all about the confusion of growing up and a loss of innocence we all have to face. You have totally underrated this book and I think when you were reading it you must have been deconstructing it, sentence by sentence, and missed the whole point of it.

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  15. Honestly the only thing ridiculous about this is the fact that you have not read it, yet you still claim to know enough about it to judge it. It is compared to “To Kill A Mockingbird” because it has a very similar background to it. There’s a small, close-minded town, a ethic person who everyone wants to blame for the problems in the town as well as a girl who is raped and abused by her father. It is very similar to TKAMB and I believe that it will become quite a huge novel for future readers.

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