I’ve been chewing on this book for a while. Every time I decide what I’m going to say about it, I change my mind. Which I’m starting to think is a critique in its own way. Basically, I wanted to love it. I relish a good coming of age story – a romp through puberty and self-discovery and wrangling some justice out of an unjust situation. I wanted to be completely swept away. And I tried, but I think I had to try a little too hard.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey has a lot going for it – a sinister mystery at its heart, a sweet love story on the side, and a brilliantly witty rapport between the main character (not Jasper Jones but another boy named Charlie – confusing, I know!) and his best friend. However, I felt like I was reading two separate stories that on their own could have been home runs (what’s a home run in cricket-speak?), but that just got in the way of each other when forced together. We begin with the mystery story – who killed Laura Wishart? Jasper finds his former flame hanging from a tree in his secret spot in the woods. He believes that his troublemaker reputation will land him in jail for the crime, so he enlists Charlie to help him cover up her death. We’re never really told what makes Jasper trust Charlie and vice versa, but Charlie goes along with his plan.
Then there’s the other half of the story, the one in which Charlie actually plays the role of a main character we’re made to care about. He has the hots for Laura’s sister Eliza and they share awkward little bookworm flirtations, pretending they’re urbane Manhattanites (with Truman Capote as their only guide). At home, he dreams about becoming a famous author and tries to understand his parents’ secret miseries. He trades quips with his friend Jeffrey Lu and feels helpless against the small-town racism that Jeffrey and his Vietnamese family have to endure. Because this is happening during the Vietnam War. Oh yeah, why was this set in the 60s, anyway? It was just another piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit.
For me, the more cohesive, compelling story was about Charlie coming to terms with his adult self – reconciling his big city dreams with his small Australian town and understanding that his parents never got the chance to do the same. All that good growing up stuff. I get that the actual “Jasper Jones” part of the story was supposed to help him along this path, but it felt more like an out-of-place plot device designed to keep the slower-moving (but I thought, better) story afloat.
The best passage in this book was the oddly arresting cricket scene, in which the eternally enthusiastic outcast Jeffrey finally gets the chance to prove his chops and lead the town to victory, providing a catalyst for Charlie to make the moves on Eliza (all caught up in the moment. Suuure). What does this admittedly awesome scene really have to do with “Jasper Jones?” Well, nothing, but I think it’s another example of how disparate this book’s plot lines were. With scenes like that one, I completely get why people would love this book. But for me, this whole story was the sum of way too many parts.