It’s December 1965 in the small Australian town of Corrigan, and 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin is an outcast because he’s bright, reads copiously and is pretty lousy at sports. His best and only friend is Jeffrey Lu, who’s an outcast because he’s of Vietnamese extraction and Australian troops are dying in the war there.
One night yet another outcast, the somewhat older Jasper Jones, comes to Charlie’s bedroom window begging for help. He’s found the beaten body of local girl Laura Wishart hanging from a tree in the remote forest, and knows that — as a half-Aboriginal — he’ll be accused of her murder and convicted before you could sneeze should the body be discovered.
So he and Charlie hide the corpse and decide to try to track down the real killer themselves. Top of their list of suspects is Mad Jack Lionel, the recluse who lives on the outskirts of town and who, it’s Known For A Fact, murdered a girl years ago. Complicating matters for Charlie is that for years he’s adored from afar Eliza Wishart, the dead Laura’s younger sister, and now it’s becoming apparent that, defying his credulity, she likes him right back.
There’s really quite a lot more plot in this engrossingly tangled coming-of-age novel, although I’m reluctant to use the term “coming-of-age” in connection with it. Really it’s a sort of noirish version of To Kill a Mockingbird — a parallel the novel itself is at pains to point out, with Charlie frequently trying to think things through “the way Atticus Finch would” and even comparing his own dad to Atticus. And, like To Kill a Mockingbird, although it has youthful protagonists it’s really a novel for grownups. (Bizarrely, it’s published in the US by Knopf under the aegis of Random House Children’s Books. Some parents might have a fit if they discovered their kids reading it.)
The tale’s told by Charlie in the present tense. He dreams of being a celebrated writer when he grows up. Slowly he discovers that his dad, Wes, shares similar dreams: both of them have been scribbling away in secret, making sure that the gorgonish Ruth, their mother and wife respectively, doesn’t find out and trample on their dreams, as she has a habit of doing. Charlie’s voice in his account of the events in Corrigan comes through loud and clear, driving the narrative inexorably forward. Every now and then the novel’s control of dialogue wobbles momentarily, as when someone uses a word you know that character would never normally use in speech; but for the most part the characters’ voices are as clear as Charlie’s, so that Jasper, Eliza, Jeffrey, Ruth, Wes and the rest emerge as real people.
I watched the 2017 movie adaptation of this a few weeks ago and liked it very much; my account of it will be appearing on Noirish before the end of the year. It’s by no means the rule that I seek out the source novels of movies that I enjoy, but in this instance I was intrigued enough to do so — and I’m very glad I succumbed to temptation. Although the movie’s very faithful to the book (it makes a few minor changes to suit the different medium), I found this didn’t mar my enjoyment in the slightest. The movie’s Jeffrey, portrayed by Kevin Long, is so close a rendition that I grinned at all his scenes in the book — especially the cricket match. I grinned, too, for exactly the opposite reason in the case of Eliza: in the book she’s described as a sort of junior Audrey Hepburn, whereas in the movie she’s played by the distinctly un-Hepburn-looking Angourie Rice. Yet Rice is a good enough actress that she too caught Eliza’s character just right, and the disparity in physical appearance bothered me not one whit. All in all, reading the book has whetted my appetite for a rewatch of the movie.
Jasper Jones has been recognized, and rightly so, by a number of literary awards. It’s a quite splendid novel, and one that I’ll not be forgetting in a hurry.