Anyone who thinks “coming of age” stories are just for the young adult market should take a read of Craig Silvey’s excellent Jasper Jones.
It’s a gripping, well-written story about small-mindedness in a country town, that’s at turns sad, disturbing, funny and inspiring.
Set in Western Australia in 1965, it’s told through the eyes of teenager Charlie Bucktin. One stifling summer night, the town outcast – Jasper Jones – comes to his window and asks for his help. Charlie follows him into the bush, and what he sees there changes him – and ultimately the town – irrevocably.
In that one night – and then the days that follow – Charlie is forced to step away from childhood innocence and see the world around him for what it is.
Charlie struggles with the burden of what he has seen, and his uncertainty is further compounded by how quickly the town becomes mired in suspicion and hatred.
My good friend Place (a regular poster on this blog) and I heard Craig Silvey speak on the theme of “coming of age” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September. He defined coming of age as being more than just a loss of innocence, that moment when the bubble bursts.
“It’s gaining and adult point of view of self assurance. It’s when you start to look beyond yourself and learn tenets of empathy. You appreciate another perspective and arrive at some sort of objective truth. It’s all about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Silvey says it takes courage to challenge myths and traditions, which is what Charlie does when he realises the world is no longer the simple place he once thought it was. And he can’t “unknow” that truth.
Over the space of a fortnight, Charlie sees and hears horrible things. He sees the world for what it is. He responds by trying to understand the nature of cruelty, and how people can go about their lives as if evil doesn’t exist (this theme was also tackled in Sang Pak’s American gothic novel Wait Until Twilight, reviewed here).
In contrast to this soul searching is the comfortable familiarity of Charlie’s friendship with his cricket-obsessed best mate Jeffrey. Their adolescent banter provides welcome relief, as well as some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve read in a while. (According to the Silvey, Charlie and Jeffrey’s conversations on puerile topics not dissimilar to the debates he has with his mates today. “It was a little too easy to write that dialogue.”)
For the creator of Jasper Jones, the idea of coming of age is not limited to youth: “We all become adults, but not all of us come of age.” And its this understanding that makes this novel such a riveting and enjoyable read.
Hearing the likable Silvey discuss Jasper Jones was one of the highlights of this year's Brisbane Writer's Festival Place and I. He was intelligent, articulate and self-effacing … and yes, we came away with a little bit of a literary crush…