Craig Silvey’s critically acclaimed novel Jasper Jones could have been another cliché story about the budding relationship between Charlie and Eliza, but Silvey managed to tie romance, crime and coming of age all into one. It is a significant contributor to the engaging and relevant young adult fiction that is currently available. This novel deals with issues that are relevant to contemporary readers, despite being set in the 1960s. Charlie Bucktin is easily the most real, relatable and important character there is. Throughout the novel, Charlie’s coming of age and awakening to the harsh real world is very similar to what modern day teenagers experience. The transition from childhood to adulthood, the true darkness of humanity and appearance vs reality are themes that recur constantly during Jasper Jones.
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This novel begins with Charlie Bucktin being awoken by an urgent knock on the window of his room. His visitor is Jasper Jones, the outcast of Corrigan. Seen as rebellious and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue to Charlie. Charlie sneaking out for the first time is described as “a little like a foal being born”, which is used to portray Charlie as an innocent child experiencing the world for the first time. It symbolises him being reborn as a new person, almost like he can sense that by going with Jasper Jones his life will change dramatically. This experience is something many current teenagers would be able to relate to, there’s a certain turning point of adolescence when they know everything is changing. Another significant event in Charlie’s transition from childhood to adulthood was when he saw his mother having an affair. “The walls might be falling, but I feel calm. I really do”, the ‘walls’ represent Charlie’s childhood and youth. With this event, he knows that nothing can go back to how it used to be. This is relatable for current teenagers as broken marriages and divorce are becoming more common, even more now than when Jasper Jones was set, as divorce rates have doubled since then. For Charlie, his parents’ expired and worn relationship was a rarity, as the belief back then was that people were ‘married for life’. Silvey is to be praised for the ways he has been able to create a very real character that represents contemporary teenagers and their issues.
The brutal and horrendous murder of Sylvia Likens plagued Charlie with thoughts about the evil in the world and considered historical monsters, he became aware of more sinister events in the world, which ultimately led to him questioning the world even more. “And how was it that Gertrude Baniszewski could seduce so many children into committing these acts? How could they turn up, day after day, to do the unspeakable? And how could they return home of an evening, no words or shame or remorse tumbling out of their mouths? What did Sylvia Likens do to deserve this? Or was it just shit luck and chance?”. The repetition of the word ‘how’ expresses Charlie’s confusion and lack of understanding of the darkness of humanity. He is completely at a loss for an explanation for some of the crueller aspects of society and people, which is a very real aspect of growing up and learning about the evil there is. The use of explicit language is realistic and demonstrates that Silvey was not afraid to write a truly honest novel that was indicative of young adults. The police physically abusing Jasper also opened Charlie’s eyes to the fact that authority figures aren’t always able to be trusted, nor will they always do the right thing. Jasper was already aware of this, as is evident in the resigned tone he used when telling Charlie about his beating “They don’t need a reason mate… they reckon I got something to do with Laura being missing”. This also ties in with the issue of racism and prejudice that was extremely prevalent in the 1960s but has become less so. The inexplicableness and incomprehensibility of the darkness of humanity also plagues Charlie, and many other teenagers trying to make sense of the world. There are certain things that have no explanation. “And the folks who trouble me, the ones who, through some break in their circuits, through some hole in their heart, can’t feel it, or say it, or scratch it into trees”. The metaphor of the ‘break in their circuits’ and ‘hole in their heart’ shows that the darkness is a flaw, a problem in the fabric of what makes people human. The repetition of the third person ‘it’ shows how foreign the concept of ‘sorry’ is to some. Charlie’s newfound confusion with why and how there are such sinister people in the world and navigating from being more sheltered as a child to suddenly learning about horrible things is still relevant for today’s teenagers.
The town of Corrigan and its people certainly have secrets, many of which are revealed to Charlie throughout the course of Jasper Jones. Peeling back the moral exterior of people reveals horrific realities. The learning that underneath someone’s appearance there can be a very jarring reality is becoming increasingly more prevalent, particularly regarding authorities. Authority figures being abusive of their powers, and not who they are thought to be, is an important issue in Jasper Jones. Laura’s father appears as the Shire President, a trustworthy, strong, well-respected family man, whereas he is actually “the worst of the lot of them” sexually abusing Laura, his own daughter. “Because Eliza didn’t know, never knew, that her father, the shire president, she never knew that he visited Laura’s bedroom as well. But he didn’t talk politely. He crept in, drunk. Always drunk. Always discreet”. The stream of consciousness writing shows how hard it was for Charlie to process the darkness Laura’s father had in his heart. This is something many real teenagers struggle with, the acceptance that there are inherently bad people, even though that may not appear to be the case. Laura’s situation is also a prime example of how, back in the 1960s, it was common for people to keep secrets within their families. This was done so they did not ‘air their dirty laundry’ or feel judged by their community. When the Sergeant who savagely beat Jasper comes to Charlie’s house and is comforting and familiar, Charlie has a difficult time reconciling these different versions of him. “I remember thinking that if I hadn’t seen the cuts and bruises on Jasper’s face for myself, I wouldn’t have thought for a second that this burly paternal copper was capable of locking up an innocent boy without charge and beating him. If Jasper Jones hadn’t shown me the cigarette burns on his shoulders just hours before, if I hadn’t touched their ugly pink pucker with my fingertips, I wouldn’t have suspected this man to be the monster he was”. Jasper Jones as the town scapegoat is another character who is very different to what he appears to be. Jasper’s appearance is that “He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Truant” according to the town. The definitiveness of this judgement is shown by the asyndeton and capitalisation, demonstrating that the town is unlikely to change their perspective of Jasper. In reality, “Jasper Jones speaks the truth in a whole town of liars”, according to Charlie, which contrasts the entirety of Corrigan’s views. The appearance versus reality of many characters is crucial for Charlie throughout the novel, and for many teens as they come to realise that not everything is as it seems.
By using themes that all focus on growing up and learning truths about the world, both good and bad, Craig Silvey has been able to make the character of Charlie Bucktin highly relatable to modern day teenage readers. Jasper Jones is one of many relevant youth novels, and it showcases the transition from childhood to adulthood, the true darkness of humanity and appearance vs reality, which all contribute to the realness of Charlie’s coming of age. He is navigating his way through an increasingly complex society, much like contemporary readers. Despite being in completely different eras and societies, Charlie and current teens face very similar problems and issues.
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