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.