I’ve always wanted to use the word bildungsroman, and in Jasper Jones (2009) Craig Silvey has given me the perfect opportunity. Charlie Bucktin sums up what happens to him in this story in words that could stand as the definition of a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel: ‘It’s like I’ve got to crawl out of my own eggshell and emerge … I can’t unfurl from my cocoon when I’m good and ready. I’ve been pulled out early and left in the cold’. Thanks Craig.
The year is 1965. It is a hot summer night in Corrigan, a mining town in Western Australia. Thirteen year old Charlie is reading Mark Twain when he is interrupted by Jasper Jones, a boy with a terrible reputation in the town: ‘He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant’, and everything bad that happens in the town is attributed to him. Charlie hardly knows him, but thinks of him as distinctly charismatic; he can’t resist Jasper’s plea for help. However when Charlie finds out what Jasper wants to show him, and learns what help Jasper needs, he has suddenly to grow up.
Some other things happen in the story to make Charlie grow up, including problems with his parents, a racist attack on the family of his best friend Jeffrey Lu (by 1965 Australia was embroiled in the war in Vietnam), and his first kiss. But Jasper Jones is the key to his self discovery.
There are lots of things to like about this book. Charlie is a delight; happy, sad or thoughtful, he is always interesting. And his friendship with Jeffrey sparkles: ‘Chuck, I bid you a jew.’ ‘And I owe you a revoir.’ Both are bright boys in a town ‘whose social currency is sport’. Charlie is bullied for being smart, but persists with his passion for new words (even though ‘they always fail me when I need them’). ‘Every new word is like getting a punch back.’ Jeffrey is a brilliant cricketer, but prejudice keeps him out of the local team. Both Charlie and Jeffrey are able to take a satisfying measure of revenge. There is also an interesting interplay between myth and reality, between what the town believes and what is actually the case, though this reality will in time itself become myth. Silvey writes well. The hot summer landscape is vividly evoked, and the first person present tense narrative is engaging.
Then there is Jasper Jones himself. His view of growing up provides a counter-point to Charlie’s. He says it’s not a matter of how old you are: ‘Everyone ages. Everyone can learn a trade and pay taxes and have a family. But that’s not growin’ up. It’s about how you act when your shit gets shaken up, it’s about how much you see around you. That’s what makes a man.’ Silvey has an interest in American literature, and there are references to Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, all of whom have ‘coming of age’ elements in their writing. But most important is Mark Twain, and it is difficult not to see Jasper Jones as a Huckleberry Finn character, with Charlie as a Tom Sawyer. This is in itself perhaps almost enough to explain the rapport between the boys. Somewhat against the odds, I found their relationship convincing.
But somehow the central situation in the book doesn’t work for me. What Charlie learns on that first night is so devastating that I don’t think he could operate after it even as well as he does. He says he feels like there is a brick inside him permanently weighing him down, but his behaviour doesn’t convince me. I don’t find the behaviour of his girlfriend, Eliza Wishart, entirely credible either. The side story about his relationship with his mother also seems a bit off key.
On balance? Worth reading, even if not completely satisfying.
This is Craig Silvey’s second novel, the first being Rhubarb (2004). You can read more about Silvey here.