Jasper Jones is a book that is more exciting in its promise than its actuality. But that’s not to say it doesn’t work just fine by itself.
Charlie Bucktin, our thirteen-year-old narrator, crawls out of his bedroom window one night because Jasper Jones, the town outcast and scapegoat, has been knocking on his window. He’s not sure why, but he trusts Jasper enough to follow him into the woods, where Jasper reveals his secret: his girlfriend, Laura, has been hung from a tree with a piece of Jasper’s rope. Jasper knows he will be blamed for Laura’s death no matter what, and pleads with Charlie to help him cut Laura down and put her body in the river. All Charlie can think is that Jasper is right: he will be blamed no matter what. He helps Jasper, and the events of the book are set into motion.
Jasper and Charlie have good reason to think as they do: the Australian town of Corrigan is small and small-minded. Jasper’s father is an abusive alcoholic, so Jasper fends for himself, living mainly in a hidden forest glade. But his hard, lonely life doesn’t garner him any sympathy from the inhabitants of Corrigan, partly because they are incredibly racist. Jasper is half-Aboriginal. The townsfolk show a similar antipathy towards Charlie’s best friend, Jeffrey. The book is set during the Vietnam War, and Jeffrey is of Vietnamese descent.
The book is moderately suspenseful, but the real value here is in the character depictions. None of the characters in this book are stereotypes. Charlie is a non-athletic book nerd and aspiring author, but he is also a brave person and independent thinker as opposed to the boilerplate cowardly pedant. He is only moderately awkward around the girl he has a crush on. Jeffrey is a great student, but also a gifted cricket player. He is also cheerful and non-resentful of most of the abuse heaped on him by the racist townsfolk. The dialogue between him and Charlie is smart and funny and absolutely true to tone; it sounds like what you sounded like when you talked shit to your friends as teenagers. Charlie’s relationship with his parents is also a great dynamic. He is of an age to begin to see them as people, not just as parents, and to make judgments about whether he likes them as such. Silvey very deftly hints at aspects of Charlie’s parents’ relationship that Charlie himself does not quite grasp. Jasper is a sympathetic, but less developed personality. This is likely deliberate, since he is a figure of some mystery even for Charlie, who feels very näive in comparison to Jasper the outsider, but simultaneously plays the role of his protector.
It is a book that is YA in essence as well as genre. It’s not the kind of novel classified as YA simply because it features teens; it is also clearly geared towards the teenage reader (though not younger than that– it deals with some content possibly not appropriate for children who are not yet teens). If you like YA, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. If you’re on the fence, this is not your crossover book.
Silvey is very forthright about drawing thematic influence from Mark Twain and Harper Lee, and he deploys that influence well– but doesn’t add much to it outside of a decent story. Jasper Jones might serve as a great introduction to the themes of prejudice, the importance of independent thinking, and growing up, but it doesn’t offer much new insight for more experienced readers. This is what I mean when I say the book has promise: Silvey clearly has talent, but I think his best work might still be ahead of him. That’s okay though; it just means we have something to look forward to.