Like many young adult authors writing today, Australian Craig Silvey owes a huge debt to Harper Lee. Just released in America, Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones pays homage to Lee’s Southern Gothic atmosphere in To Kill a Mockingbird, with its elements of small-town intolerance, sudden coming-of-age, and the juxtaposition of innocence and wickedness. But if Silvey borrowed from Lee to build this book, he has paid it all off with interest; Jasper Jones is a fresh and unexpected story from an author whose talent is all his own.
Set in a small town in western Australia, Jasper Jones is, in Silvey’s words, “a coming-of-age, regional mystery novel, stuffed inside a nervous little love story, garnished with family drama and adolescent escapism and anguish.” In the already tense atmosphere of the Vietnam War draft and the suffocating heat of the summer of 1965, the Shire President’s teenage daughter goes missing. Though nobody knows the particulars, every finger points to Jasper Jones. Half-white, half-Aboriginal and a ticking time bomb of adolescent energy, Jasper is the insular little town’s favorite scapegoat, and thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin’s (our wonderfully nerdy little narrator) secret hero.
One night, as Charlie is tucked safely in bed, immersed in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, he hears Jasper calling urgently to him. Although every instinct insists that Charlie stay where he is, he sneaks out for the first time in his life, honored to be of use to the tough guy the town has dismissed as “a thief, a liar, a thug, a truant.” Jasper leads Charlie deep into the woods, to a secret place only he knows and, not knowing who else to turn to, shows Charlie his grisly discovery. Bound by both secrecy and a vivid sense of justice reminiscent of Atticus Finch, Charlie agrees to help Jasper prove his innocence, but has no idea how this promise will affect his own life.
If Southern Gothic is as Tennessee Williams described, a style which captures “an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience,” then Silvey’s book for young adults is a shining gem of the genre. Silvey explores what lies beneath quiet normalcy through the relationship between two of his main characters, contrasting Charlie’s wide-eyed innocence with Jasper’s jaded resignation. It is, in fact, Charlie’s sheltered and limited experience that initially blind him to the horrors that surround him, and even though he has had his share of troubles, these encounters have only reinforced his cowardice. On the other hand, Jasper is all too aware of the darker nature of his neighbors. Despite the fact that all he has known in life are abuse and cruelty, suspicion and prejudice, this maltreatment has taught him to become self-sufficient, refusing to play the victim to anyone’s brutality. He explains his philosophy to Charlie, saying:
“I don’t need to trick meself into thinkin anyone else is listenin, or even cares. Because it doesn’t matter. I matter. And I know I’ll be alright. Because I got a good heart, and f* this town for makin me try to believe otherwise. It’s what you come with and it’s what you leave with. And that’s all I got.”
While this review has focused on the darker aspects of Jasper Jones, it would be a disservice to the book and its characters if I failed to mention that beneath the intrigue and superb plotting is some of the quickest, wittiest dialogue I’ve read in YA in a very long time. Charlie and his best friend Jeffrey Lu light up the page with their sophisticated and simultaneously low-brow, boy banter. Jeffrey, a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian, is one of the most marginalized and bullied characters in the story, but he is also the kind of kid who jumps right back up each time he’s knocked down. Yes, this is a serious book about the loss of innocence, but it is also a story about a couple of really smart and hilarious kids trying to suss out this crazy world. Expert suspense and pitch-perfect comedic timing take turns wrenching emotions about, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself sputtering with delight during one of the many intense scenes that make this book so damn good.
If you’re hankering for another coming-of-age novel that will leave you breathless with antici…pation, offer murky approaches to justice and creep the bejesus out of you, take a peek at these lovelies:
When Evie’s happy-go-lucky stepfather returns home from World War II, there is a little less swing in his step, but a lot more change in his pockets. War, it seems, has been good to him and awarded him with some lucrative, if ambiguous, opportunities. But when a handsome stranger shows up, claiming to be her stepfather’s war-buddy, their perfectly constructed world starts to fall apart. As Evie begins to develop strong emotions for the young man, the lies and deceptions grow stronger, too, until one one terrible night when all is revealed and Evie is forced to choose between love and loyalty.
In this multi-layered mystery, we recognize a precocious version of Harriett the Spy in Donna Tartt’s mischievous protagonist. When he was just nine, Harriett’s older brother died tragically, leaving an indelible mark on his sister’s life. She grows up obsessed with his death and with discovering the culprit. Tartt’s “knowledge of Southern ethos-the importance of family, of heritage, of race and class-is central to the plot, as is her take on Southerners’ ability to construct a repertoire, veering toward mythology, of tales of the past,” says Publisher’s Weekly.
In her last novel before her death in 1965, Jackson tells the story of the two Blackwood sisters and their uncle who, eschewing their prejudiced and angry neighbors in the town, have remained cloistered within their sprawling house on the outskirts of town for years. Only Mary Katherine, or Merricat, attempts contact with the village below, and is rewarded with sneers and chanting as she collects the family’s weekly supplies. Merricat is an amazingly creepy and unreliable narrator, and the world through her eyes is a strange and isolated place, indeed.