Is it closer to 50 degrees than 30 where you are? Over the past few days my home town of Perth has had a pretty significant heatwave and bushfires have destroyed many, many homes. Anyone in town can donate clothes and household items to victims at Clan Midland, Mathoura Street, Midland, and also 7000 Great Eastern Highway, Mundaring. Phone: 9290 6666. Brown Park in Swan View needs toiletries and towels for those displaced by fire also.
Let’s spare the people affected and the 275 odd people fighting the fire whatever we can in physical support as well as our thoughts.
Meanwhile, let’s talk Australian literature. Over the next few days I’ve got reviews of some Aussie novels lined up. I’d love to hear what Australian novels you’ve enjoyed recently.
Firstly, from a country town in 1960s Western Australia comes this “coming of age story”
about race, violence and the stories that aren’t told. I’ve never really understood what “coming of age story” means, only that it’s the kind of story that is usually told about dudes, for whom becoming what they call “a man” proves to be a hazardous journey. I’m thinking Catcher in the Rye here (which I didn’t love at all). If that’s the criteria, I suppose that’s exactly what Jasper Jones is. Narrated by 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, the novel is about the town outcast Jasper Jones. Son to an alcoholic white father and an Aboriginal, now dead, mother, the only time Jasper is welcome in Corrigan is when he’s scoring goals on the football field. He’s well-known to the local police, referred to as “half-caste”, when children get into mischief the first thing their frantic parent asks is whether they were with Jasper Jones. But one night Jasper appears at Charlie’s window and drags the bookish kid out into a wide world of fear, secrets and injustice.
Craig Silvey is a brilliant West Australian writer, the way he writes his characters so as to be so endearing, the way he evokes the suspicions and mistrust of a small town in this 2009 novel is very clever. Charlie and his best friend Jeffery Lu’s banter is actually funny, not just trying to be, and his treatment of racial prejudice is almost lighthearted, as such unthinking prejudice often is, but unflinching. The fact is, Vietnamese Jeffery will never be asked to play cricket despite his skill, just as Jasper will be presumed guilty despite his innocence. I envy Silvey’s ability to give depth to ongoing social injustices, habits, matrices with such light brushstrokes. He evokes a convincingly hot outback summer, as the stifling little community casts suspicious eyes at each other, but especially at anyone different.
The novel has all the hallmarks of an Australian To Kill a Mocking Bird. It almost certainly will feature in high school English classrooms before long and will stay on the curriculum for many years to come. But I was a little irritated that the women in the novel had so little agency, and when they do direct events, it’s to destructive ends. Silvey’s deft treatment of all the other characters made his treatment of women disappointing. He is so in tune to the injustice usually glossed over, to the social undercurrent gathering momentum leading to historical social change. That aside the novel really did remind me of Mockingbird and through Charlie’s repeated reference to Harper Lee and Atticus Finch you get the impression it is intentional (Mockingbird was published five years before Jasper Jones is set). It would almost be arrogant if the novel wasn’t so good.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey: four stars.
Read it if: you want to know what will be on the Year 12 Lit exam this year or if you need reminding that simple storytelling is a powerful skill for social change.