Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is a novel that was recommended to me recently, based mostly on the keywords “Jaclyn Moriarty,” “YA lit,” and “Australia.” There is something about Australian YA lit that is just so bang on – well-written, relatable, excellent dialogue, amazing story – that I search it out sometimes, especially in the summer. From Garth Nix to Jaclyn Moriarty to Markus Zusak and now Craig Silvey – there are some unbelievable authors from Australia writing for YA/adolescent readers. Jasper Jones is also a Prinz Honor Book, and there is no going wrong EVER with one of those. Anyway, it was recommended to me, and now I’m recommending it as well, all chain-letter-style, paying-it-forward, passing-it-on.
It’s hard to talk about Jasper Jones without giving away the secret at the heart of the novel, something introduced within the first few pages, but worth keeping quiet about in a review because those first few pages are some of the most powerful in the novel. The synopsis on the back of the book talks about this secret that “sits like a brick in Charlie’s belly,” and it will sit like that with the reader, too, hard and sharp and heavy.
Charlie is the main character here, and the novel starts with the line, “Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.” Jasper Jones is not really someone who asks for help – he’s Charlie’s age, just in his teens, but he already mostly lives on his own, away from home and his drunk and absent father, staying mostly in a hollow in the bush outside of the small town of Corrigan. When he comes to Charlie’s window, Charlie pulls back the glass panes of the window and follows him without asking questions.
Jasper Jones is interested in the idea of human nature, and what it is that makes individuals do horrific and violent things to one another. Charlie wants to know the “why” and “how,” and his summer circles around the basic questions of what leads a person to get to the point where it is possible for him/her to hurt another person. When Charlie comes across an account of a man who went to jail for murder, his mind cycles around the answer the man gave – “I just wanted to hurt someone” – and whether something as simple as that is possible, or if it only hides other layers of explanation, cause and effect. It’s a lot of what Markus Zusak was looking at in The Messenger – how can people watch the horrific things that happen around them without doing anything about it?
There are issues here at play that underlie the secret Charlie carries. His best friend Jeffrey Lu is from Vietnam, and the story is set smack-dab in the middle of the Vietnam War, where a small Australian town flares with the all-too recent conscription notices alongside official letters informing Corrigan residents of the death of their young men abroad. Their anger focuses on the Yu family, Jeffrey and his parents all at the receiving end of racism in the community. And then there is the dropped reference to Jasper’s own half-Aboriginal heritage, a brief mention of which adds a layer to the way that he is treated by the town of Corrigan, who respond to him with suspicion and violence, the sergeant taking him in and beating him up all over, cigarette burns and black eyes that Charlie sees a few days after it happens. When Charlie looks at Jasper and understands that he will always be the first suspected in any event, he thinks, “And it happens like that. Like when you first realize that there is no such thing as magic. Or that nothing actually answers your prayers, or really even listens. That cold moment of dismay where your feet are kicked from under you, where you’re disarmed by a shard of knowing. He’s right. Jasper Jones is right. He’s really in trouble.” But Charlie can learn a lot from Jasper Jones, how to be hard in an uncaring world, as he says, “You don’t have to lie, Charlie. You just have to look like you don’t give a shit.”
There are meditations on religion in this novel that are complex and nuanced, as Charlie’s secret comes together with the way Jasper Jones is treated in Corrigan alongside the Vietnam War and his best friend Jeffrey. Jesus is “Cheeses” in this book, but the humor is coupled with long conversations about life and death, especially when Jasper talks to Charlie about how many billions of people have lived on Earth already, and he notes, “…they’re fools to be thinkin that some big bearded bastard gives two shits how much money they throw in a tin tray or if they eat fish of a Friday. It’s all rubbish.” When Charlie tries to counter that people have to “cast a line out to outer space, like there’s something out there to connect to,” Jasper asks him if he really means that; Charlie responds, “Me? No. Course not. I’m a speck of dust like you.”
Charlie’s comprehension and interpretation of the literary novels that his father gives him to read – The Sound and the Fury, Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird – are both funny and intricate. The rampant references to smoking and drinking in the novels he reads come up against his experience with smoking and his first drink of whiskey with Jasper Jones:
This shit is poison. And I realize I’ve been betrayed by the two vices that fiction promised me I’d adore. Sal Paradise held up bottles of booze like a housewife in a detergent commercial. Holden Caulfield reached for his cigarettes like an act of faith. Even Huckleberry Finn tapped on his pipe with relief and satisfaction. I can’t trust anything. If sex turns out to be this bad, I’m never reading again. At this rate, it will probably burn my dick and I’ll end up with lesions.
Charlie and Jeffrey also have involved conversations about superheroes, where they figure, “The thing about Spiderman is that he is completely useless outside of New York City…He’s nothing. And he’s sticking out like a dog’s bollocks. Suddenly he’s just a weird-looking guy with snot shooting out of his wrists.” A contemplation on humanity is buffeted by issues from religion and crime to superheroes and day-to-day life, all on the background of a summer in 1970s Australia, where Charlie is figuring out his place and reason for belonging. And then there’s also love. Where Charlie notes, “Eliza’s manner has always intrigued me. She seems troubled, yet infinitely untroubled. Sometimes at school her heart beats too fast and she has to sit down. She goes quiet and pale and tells everybody she’s fine, even though she’s breathless and sweaty. And I just want to hold her hand and slow her pulse and calm her down.”
This is YA lit at its best and most challenging, its most relatable and alien. Charlie, an aspiring writer of his own, passes on Silvey’s narrative with an ease and grace that make every single word worth reading. As Charlie reflects near the end of the novel,
But it’s nice to know that you had enough weight to hold it down, to keep it grounded so you could admire it for a time. Like something precious that you can pull out and look at. A piece of jewelry. A poem, a song. And you want to tie it to something permanent, put it in a cage at night. Have it for keeps, despite its nature. Like people who put rings on their fingers just so neither of them can leave. But of course you can’t do that. Holding something back doesn’t make it yours. You realize at some point you’re just keeping it back for yourself, because it’s pulling away with equal force. You’ve got to cut the string from your finger and leave that wispy thread, like a baby spider on the breeze.
It’s a book that you can’t tie down even if you want to, one that allows you to just enjoy the small moments crowded into a book like Jasper Jones.