Accidently, I managed to pick up a copy of another University of Canberra Book of the Year. “Jasper Jones” by Craig Silvey was UC’s book of the year for 2013, though I was a fair way through the novel before I started to understand why.
Set in the mid-1960s, you could be forgiven for thinking that Jasper Jones is the literary love-child of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Australian author Phillip Gwynne’s novel “Deadly, Unna?”. It definitely starts out like a cheap knock off of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when eponymous local Aboriginal teen outcast turns up at the narrator Charlie Bucktin’s window one summer night asking for help in fear that will be accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit.
However, this is a novel that is far too self-aware to be called a copycat. Despite the fact that there are a lot of literary tropes, especially the themes of coming of age, the bookish young boy, the outcast person of colour and the murdered teenage girl, this book really does capture the subtleties and nuances of racism and race politics in Australia. While Charlie himself is a bit of a stereotype, none of his friends, family or neighbours are and it’s the peripheral characters and their struggles that really set this novel apart. Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey is a particular example of breaking the mould and his story is arguably one of the most interesting. This novel also has that sense of realism that I am so fond of in Australian film and literature which is really felt through Silvey’s depictions of Charlie’s relationship with his mum and the endless, empty summer days.
I knew that this was a good book because it was a novel that left me feeling angry. There is a sense of apathy in this country that makes me sick, and it is a plague that continues to afflict this country 50 years on. There’s a term for when members of the public do not step in to assist a victim, and it is called “bystander apathy“. I’ve seen bystander apathy happen so many times. It’s when there’s an accident, but nobody stops to help. It’s when there’s a public act of violence, but nobody intervenes. It’s when someone is racially vilified by another, and nobody interjects. This book provides an extremely realistic example of the latter, and it stings all the more because nothing has changed. We as Australians still stand by and do NOTHING.
“Jasper Jones” is a book that grows into a subtle and complex commentary on Australian society that, although set 50 years ago, is still incredibly relevant today.