June 2, 2011
Craig Silvey’s new novel (his second) is categorized as a book for young readers by Alfred A. Knopf, which published the book in April. And yet it’s standing with adult literary heavyweights as a contender for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. That struck me as unusual, but then I realized the teen classification is from the U.S. publisher. I checked Allen & Unwin, the Australian company that first published the book in 2009, and Jasper Jones is listed there as literary fiction. Either way it falls, I had to find out what this book is about, and why so much attention is on it – Jasper Jones has won scads of awards in Silvey’s native Australia, including the Australian Indie Book of the Year Award 2009.
The novel is set in a small Australian town in the 1960s. It opens with the feral 14-year-old Jasper Jones seeking the help of 13-year-old narrator Charlie Bucktin in covering up a murder until he can find who’s responsible for it. Jasper can’t go to the police because he’s a social outcast whom everyone blames for whatever goes wrong in town. Also, Laura Wishart, the girl who was murdered, is hanging from a tree in his secret hideout. She was Jasper’s best friend.
While the story begins with a murder, it doesn’t predictably dissolve into a “whodunit.” Silvey brings other plots to the forefront: Charlie’s BFF relationship with Jeffrey Lu, a talented cricket player shunned by the town’s team because he’s Vietnamese and Australian soldiers are dying in the Vietnam war; his confrontational relationship with his mother; and his complicated love relationship with Eliza Wishart, Laura’s sister.
One of the most entertaining elements of this vivid story are the conversations between the bookish Charlie and the amusing Jeffrey about who’s the better superhero, Batman or Superman, and how stripes get into toothpaste and why men have nipples. It’s like overhearing kids on a school bus. Maybe this is kid talk written for a teen perspective, but it’s also masterful character creation that makes Charlie and Jeffrey fully real to an adult.
Racism and social ostracism are powerful themes, but the concept of fear as a misguided source for belief and action is the most affecting one. Indeed, it’s at the root of all that goes wrong. At one point, Jasper says to Charlie: “See, everyone here’s afraid of something and nuthin. This town, that’s how they live, and they don’t even know it. They stick to what they know, what they bin told. They don’t unnerstand that it’s just a choice you make.”
Silvey packs a lot in to this enjoyable, intriguing and briskly paced novel, and he does it so well it’s as if we’re living and breathing the air of this small mining town. Teen lit? I’d say a definite yes, but it’s on the mature level of the Hunger Games, which I’m guessing will fill theaters with its adult readers when the movie’s released 2012. IMPAC winner? Definitely a worthy contender, and we’ll find out June 15.
May 10, 2011
This is the second appearance of Michael Crummey’s novel Galore on TLS, which I spotlighted several months ago as a forthcoming book to keep an eye on. After being absorbed in it this past week, I can tell you it’s one of those novels that engulfs readers in atmospheric writing and unique characters that provide delightful escape into another world. That world is from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, although in the first half of the book the timeframe is vague. It takes place on the unmerciful shores of Newfoundland in a fictional fishing outport called Paradise Deep. The story opens biblically with an albino man pulled from the belly of a beached whale, and he survives. Inhabitants of Paradise Deep refer to this mute stranger afflicted with a permanent stink as the Great White or Judah.
Judah is ever-present in the 300+ pages of Galore, but no one character in this extraordinary novel gets predominant focus, rather it’s a story about the handful of people in this place descended from rivals Devine’s Widow and King-Me Sellers. Their unlikely marriages and love affairs, their adventures on the water, and their varying religious faiths cleverly stir the plot. This is no typical generational saga, however, because of the folkloric sorcery Crummey deftly weaves into their fishing lives. It lends a magical, seductive quality to the story, and I responded to it as if unaware that it was anything unusual – such as the ghost of a dead man living with his wife, or the thick foliage of an apple tree providing baptismal protection from disease to the children, or a teacup curing a rash of warts. One difficulty: Keeping the characters straight in the second half of the book is a challenge, but Crummey provides a family tree, which I frequently referred to.
The short and long of IMPAC
Galore has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest and most international prize of its kind. Nominees come from public libraries in countries around the world. According to the award’s website, 10 novels have been shortlisted for the award, from a total of 162 novels nominated by 166 public library systems in 126 cities worldwide. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is worth €100,000.
Along with Galore, books on the shortlist for the IMPAC prize include the following. The winner will be announced June 15.
- The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
- Ransom by David Malouf
- Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
- Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates
- Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
- Brooklyn by Colm Toibín
- Love and Summer by William Trevor
- After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyl