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.