09 November 2009

Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey)

Today is the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and mention of the wall always reminds me of a story my mother told me years ago. She was travelling through Europe and stopped at the border between West and East Berlin. The car was searched, as were her bags. Amongst her possessions was a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. The guard held it up and scrutinised it, flipped through the pages. It was banned in the East, for obvious reasons. I don't know whether my mother knew this and packed it anyway with her typical "They can't tell me what books to carry around for God's Sake" attitude or whether she really had no idea the book was banned. I am inclined to go with the former. At any rate, the guard decided the book was harmless and let my mother enter. Once there she decided to leave the book at the place where she was staying, her little rebellion against the regime.

To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite book in the world. I am aware I hardly hold the monopoly on this thought but I don't care. I'm happy to be merely one in a group of millions. I'm not going to bother you with a review either, as I'm sure those who have read it need no convincing of its greatness and those who haven't just need to know they have a treat in store for them. But I am going to review Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, which came out this year.

During the summer of 1965 in a small town called Corrigan, Charlie Bucktin is pulled into a murder mystery involving Jasper Jones, the town scapegoat. The Vietnam War hangs over the town, anxiety making the heatwave even worse. Cricket, sweets, girls and books act as diversions but ultimately Corrigan's corrupt, racist core begins to seep through. The disappearance of the Shire President's daughter turns out to be just one in a number of dark secrets the town is hiding.

I'm hesitant to say this is an Australian version of To Kill A Mockingbird, although that is obviously what it is. Charlie's father is compared often to Atticus Finch, Charlie's friendship and conversations with his best friend Jeffrey draw on the conversations Scout and Jem had, Mad Jack Lionel is Corrigan's Boo Radley. Jasper Jones, the innocent blamed for the death of a young girl, is half-Aboriginal and whilst the racism he encounters is far more underhand than that exhibited in the deep South in To Kill A Mockingbird, it is ever present nonetheless. I'm hesitant though, to make these comparisons, because I want this book to be judged on its own merits. Silvey captures the essence of the small Australian town beautifully and the character of Charlie is wonderfully written: honest, intelligent, witty, with all the erratic whims and prejudices of the young.

However, the most erudite point I want to make about this novel is that it made me think about those monstrous and momentous events in history that so often seem to happen elsewhere and not to us in Australia. Great novels are written about these events, these times, and then, decades later, an Australian author will write their own version of it. I have come to the conclusion this is not a bad thing, it is a truly positive thing. We could so easily remove ourselves from the rest of the world, snug in our knowledge that we are far away from the dangerous world. We could fail to care that it is 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, feeling, perhaps, that it had nothing to do with us. That is why it is glorious when we do care, when we do feel emotion, feel outrage on behalf of another culture, experience joy when something momentous occurs elsewhere. Just because we are geographically removed does not mean we have to be emotionally removed.

This is why I loved Jasper Jones. Not only did the characters resonate, the dialogue amuse, the plot intrigue, but Craig Silvey reached out to the American literary canon, referenced it and then made it a relevant piece of Australian fiction. It could have failed abysmally, but it didn't.

Rating: 9/10.
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