The first thing that struck me while reading Jasper Jones was the authenticity of the dialogue. Charlie and his friend Jeffery speak in a way that is so redolent of my own 13-year old son’s conversations with his friends that it was almost shocking. I don’t think I’ve seen that insulting macho warmth captured so well before in literature. My son actually read this book before me, and when I said this to him, he responded in agreement. Charlie Bucktin is a young boy at that wonderful and terrible age where youth and maturity are both fighting equally for supremacy. For some children that loss of childhood may come later, but the roots tend to be right there, at the testosterone-rich edge of the teen years when you are simultaneously understanding, and struggling with everything: emotions, authority, expectations, relationships. Charlie is a character that is both extraordinary and ordinary – a boy who is utterly recognisable as he tries to come to terms with the terrible situation he finds himself in.
Jasper Jones is the local tough boy – “a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant.” He’s the town’s scapegoat – a half caste who sleeps rough and is blamed whenever something goes missing. One summer evening, Jasper knocks on Charlie’s window, urging him out to help him deal with a horrible crime that Jasper fears he will be held responsible for. For a bookworm like Charlie, an association with Jasper is both terrifying and titillating. It’s the start of a fairly straightforward plotline that involves solving the mystery that tortures both Charlie and Jasper, but it’s also the start of Charlie’s own coming of age – a more complicated story about love, prejudice, and the making of a meaningful life that has an air of nostalgia bedded into it – as if the narrator were recounting his story from an older reflective distance.
Although it takes the structure of a mystery-thriller, with its intense opening, Jasper Jones is a rich character-driven novel set late in 1965, during the Vietnam War. Throughout the book, humour and pathos mingle expertly, reminding us that joy and pain are often two sides of a single coin. There are many wonderful examples of this, from Jeffrey’s first cricket game where he plays through racist taunts, to a scene at Church where in the midst of Jeffrey’s (the ‘Fartful Podger’) stolen ginger snaps, his mother is attacked for being Vietnamese.
It is during the first cricket game where we meet a real bully – the parallel character to Jasper – Warwick Trent:
“And probably due to the fact that most of his bodily resources are diverted directly to his pituitary gland, he’s also an affront to academia. Seldom is this boasted about, but he also holds the record for the most grades repeated (two). It’s a little fact that renders me smug, but also sore, because his stupidity has placed him in my grade.
“See, in class, if I use a word that he believes is too clever, or isn’t one of the half-dozen monosyllabic commands that he readily understands, he and his henchmen will seek me out, either at lunch or after school, and will repeat the offending word like a mantra, each time punching me on either shoulder.” (75)
In the middle of crisis, as Charlie is coming to recognise a variety of falsehoods in his own life and home, mingling with a growing tension between his parents, he has his first experience of love. This is coupled with guilt, fear, and displacement, as the simple truths of his hometown become unravelled. There are certainly moments of warmth and a bit of “Sassytime,” as Jeffrey calls it, and the dialogue between the two friends continues through the book to be lighthearted and humorous, even when everything else is black, but Jasper Jones is no light read. There are serious issues addressed in this book, powerful and bleak. The damage in many cases can’t be undone, and the ending, while tying things up neatly, doesn’t allow for a return to innocence.
The small Western Australia town of Corrigan is almost a character, with its stifling prejudices that spreads through the minor characters, from Jasper’s missing father, to the young thugs who destroy Jeffrey’s father’s beautiful garden. There are secrets to be uncovered everywhere – in both child and adult – past and present. Villains lurk throughout this book in unexpected places. Jasper Jones remains a nobody — the silent, disappearing hero in Charlie’s life, but he is also heroic — the catalyst to change and growth. Although there are dark edges to Jasper Jones, this is a wonderful, beautifully written, positive story of personal transformation which lingers with the reader.