Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

So I didn’t love Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey as much as I thought I would *ducks for cover as Australian-literature fans start chucking stuff at me*.

Jasper Jones is set in a small Australian mining town in 1965.  The story is told from the perspective of Charlie Bucktin, a surprisingly articulate boy of thirteen, who is startled by an urgent knock on his window one night. His visitor is Jasper Jones, a part-Aboriginal boy and a branded trouble-maker.

“Jasper Jones has a terrible reputation in Corrigan. He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant. He’s lazy and unreliable. He’s a feral and an orphan, or as good as… He’s the rotten model that parents hold aloft as a warning.”

Jasper needs Charlie’s help – for what, becomes the main plot of the story.

“This night has pickpocketed me of precious things I can’t ever get back. I feel robbed, but I don’t feel cheated by Jasper Jones. It’s a curious emptiness. Like when you move to a new house and there’s no furniture nor familiar walls, the same sort of weird alloy of abandonment and upheaval.”

I ran into trouble before I’d even opened the book. There’s a testimonial on the cover that brands Jasper Jones as “…an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird…”.  I wondered how Silvey felt when his book was labelled this way. Personally, I would have been shitting myself – those Mockingbird shoes are bloody big shoes to fill.

That pesky testimonial influenced my reading from the outset. I was on the lookout for similarities between the books (there are themes of prejudice and truth in both) and at the same time wondered how much Silvey had Mockingbird in mind as he was writing (evidently he did as there are a number of references to Harper Lee and comparisons between Lee’s Atticus and  Charlie’s father). Was it a homage to Mockingbird? An expansion on the themes? Or simply coincidental? Whatever the answer, I really wish that testimonial wasn’t on the cover.

I found some of the writing beautiful. Marvelous, sinuous descriptions of hot summer nights, spitting watermelon pips and the first rush of love. Likewise, the banter between Charlie and Jeffrey had the conversational rhythms that are exclusive to true friends.

“So we sit in silence. Parts of the alphabet whirl and slat across my brain like sleet, refusing to form any kind of meaningful sentences. Eliza leans back on her hands. Relaxed and perfect. A softback in her lap, fanning out from the shallow gully between her legs.”

And there are moments of sheer brilliance. The description of the cricket match could be the poster-child for fictitious sports writing – it had atmosphere, suspense and encapsulated the thrill of victory and the crush of defeat (it was on par with the baseball games in The Art of Fielding, which is big-bickies for me).

But other parts of the writing grated dreadfully. Beautiful sentences spoiled by the addition of another (put the pen down, Mr Silvey) and the use of the same metaphors over and over was distracting – particularly, references to the sting of insects and the brick of fear that sat in Charlie’s stomach (“Something is happening outside Jeffrey’s house. My brick sinks and I gasp.”).

The superhero theme that threaded through the story was well executed for the most part – except when dialogue about Superman and Batman went on for pages and pages. Then I felt that any of the subtleties and conclusions about the real heroes of the story (Jasper and Charlie’s father??) that I may have gleaned on my own, were actually being rammed down my throat.

“Batman has the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us, so he has the same fears as us. That’s why he is the most courageous because he can put those aside and fight on regardless. My point is this: the more you have to lose, the braver you are for standing up.”

There are other things I could nit-pick over, particularly why Jasper chooses to implicate Charlie in his dark deed. The answer is never clear and although I was swept along in the drama of the opening scenes, the question nagged.

3/5 Enough to keep me reading but not the Australian lit classic I was expecting.

Pair Jasper Jones with ‘…angles of watermelon.’


16 responses

  1. It might make you feel better that even without the heralding of the ‘just like Mockingbird’ sticker I saw that influence straight away and found it off-putting. Also, interestingly, I blogged about this very thing just yesterday: http://jennyackland.wordpress.com/

    Now all we need to do is agree on Barracuda! (Joking. I’m still thinking about it and believe I’m a little closer to working out why his writing isn’t my thing. Might write a post about it sometime.)

    • Admit I was feeling in the minority for not unreservedly loving Jasper Jones.

      LOVE your post on ‘influences’ (what was the other Mockingbird-inspired book you read??).

      Will look forward to your thoughts on Barracuda – do write a post. I think sometimes everyone gets caught up raving about a book and then opposite opinions get drowned out (not sure I’ve seen a bad review of Barracuda…).

      • The other book was Favel Parrett’s Into the Shallows. I liked it and admired it, loved her restraint. But again, it had the children in peril, the dead mother, the bad/angry father. And the odd hermity man the kids are scared of.

        Re Barra, I have picked it up again and am making notes as I re-read. Not sure I’ll read all of it, but just enough to gather my pointed darts. (!) And maybe I’ll do a Venn diagram that shows audience and market…

      • I’ve got Into the Shallows on my shelf but haven’t read it yet (on my list for the Australian Women Writers challenge though).

        I admire the fact that you’re doing a re-read of a book you didn’t love – that’s dedication!

      • Well I didn’t say I’d read it all, and I just feel it’s like I read a different book to everyone else who’s raving about it. Want to make sure I’m not going mad!

        I don’t think you’ve seen a negative review for other reasons (ie maybe it’s considered bad form to be negative about it? hence the kerfuffle recently about anonymous reviews at the upcoming new Sat paper?) but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m the only one, it has happened before.

  2. “…an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird…” oh dear, I cringed just reading that. That’s the sort of thing that makes me not want to read something, because really?! If one wanted to experience To Kill a Mockingbird, wouldn’t you just read that instead?

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  4. I read JJ when it first came out.
    Initially it was marketed as a YA book. I read it as such and thoroughly enjoyed the setting, the dialogue and the drama.
    5 years later, your mention of the cricket scene, brought it back to life in my mind – it’s definitely a scene that lingers 🙂
    I’m not sure how I would feel about a reread now though. The hype surrounding the book is hard to see past. It also seems to be sitting firmly in the adult section of most bookshops – which can change the way people approach reading it.

    I hope you read Past the Shallows soon – it was dark and beautiful.

    I’ve never been able to read The Slap, but will have a go at Barracuda soon. Mr Books enjoyed it – with reservations, so I will see how I go.

  5. That’s a tough situation, and I know what you mean – having a comparison or even just a ‘recommended for readers of…’ can give you expectations you wouldn’t have had and sometimes it spoils things. Well done on What’s In A Name, though of course I hope your next book’s better!

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  7. LOL You won’t see a negative review of Barracuda from me (and I could be relied on not to worry about ‘bad form’) because I decided I did not like Tsiolkas after The Slap, threw out the other ones I had had on my TBR, and was not tempted by Barracuda for so much as a millisecond.
    You know, it feels liberating to be able to do that. I don’t like Winton either, but I always feel I have to buy his tiresome books and read ’em because I feel like I ought to be able to join in the conversation. Occasionally I succumb to Garner as well, and I always loathe her stuff.

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