Between the Covers
Comparing a new author to a famous one is a double-edged sword. On one hand, saying Jasper Jones is an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, as his publisher does, provides instant recognition. On the other hand, it sets the bar very high. The pitfall of this approach is the reader might find that yes, it is like that other book, but maybe not as good.
Jasper Jones ticks many of the same boxes as To Kill a Mockingbird. Small town racism, violence and tension simmer away in Corrigan, a West Australian mining town in the 1960s. Silvey has said he was influenced by the ‘Southern Gothic’ style of writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain.
Thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin’s life falls apart when the outcast, Jasper Jones, enlists his help. This is a coming-of-age tale of a summer when the blinkers fall off, revealing the world to be a darker place than Charlie had thought.
There is so much about this book that I liked, it almost seems unfair to quibble about the rest. Charlie’s best friend, the irrepressible Jeffrey Lu, is a delight. The banter between the friends is quirky and original. The backdrop of the Vietnam War and its impact on the town, particularly the Lus, is skilfully handled. I love that Silvey has transposed the dark side of the American South to Australia and, in doing so, has opened up a vision of ourselves we may not have seen before. There are poignant moments such as when Jasper leaves town and Charlie reflects that, “Jasper Jones fell out of the world and nobody noticed.” A very sweet teenage romance and a fantastic cricket match top it off – what’s not to like?
My problem, I suppose, was in the expectations. As a writer, Craig Silvey is no Harper Lee. His prose sometimes seemed contrived to keep the reader at bay, rather than draw them in. Perhaps he was emulating the simple style of his role model, Mark Twain? But this initial disappointment wore off as the book’s story took hold.
So enjoy this book for its humour, characters and ever-timely reminder of the ugly side of Australia. Just don’t expect To Kill a Mockingbird.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.