I can see why this book has done as well as it has. It’s got a lot going on. Romeo and Juliet. Coming of age. Seventies small Australian town portrait. Intergenerational domestic soap opera. Underdog overcoming. Murder mystery. Maybe too much!
I enjoyed a lot of it – there’s so much happening there’s probably ‘something for everyone’- but for the same reason there’s probably something everyone will be less enamoured of. I probably had the most fun with the classic teenage verbal sparring, but, for example, found Jasper himself to be just a bit too perfect (unlike the people I know, he's not damaged by years of neglect and abuse, but ennobled). I could probably continue in dichotomous sentences like that for the rest of the review – that sentiment will probably flavour it anyway.
The book is pretty entirely populated with big characters: nobody here is Rebecca Black, torn between the tough choice of whether she should sit in the front or back seat (and, no, there’s no symbolism in those choices either). I suppose they felt a bit too Shakespearian in intensity for me to be comfortable with how far we were to take the depictions as authentic. I’m not suggesting there isn’t racism or domestic abuse or intergenerational drama in rural Australian towns (towns not that unlike the one I grew up in), but I suspect Silvey took a bit of the Dan Brown approach to facts: use them, stretch them, exaggerate them – but never let them get in the way of a good story. Big time spoilers alert for the next sentence. I’m not sure this is necessarily even a fault, but something to be aware of: hence the friend isn’t only good at cricket, he’s an absolute god; the father doesn’t do a bit writing in his spare time, he’s Hemmingway (and so is his son); Mad Jack Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather, and he was driving the car when Jasper’s mother was killed; the girlfriend’s father, the Shire President no less, impregnated his own daughter, driving her to suicide. You get the idea – there’s not just one larger than life event surrounded by more everyday ones.
I suppose that’s how Silvey operates. He takes the every day as raw material and spins some gripping tall stories around them. Some are taller than others, and some of his social commentary is actually shrewd and well observed. But I suppose while I was engaged by it, I was also uncomfortable with the mix of real-life issues and characters with melodrama. He tied several stories together, but they all had to end with an explosion. Perhaps this is a deliberate play for the teenage market, where ‘reality’ is more likely to be seen in such bold colours. Hey, I’ve seen much worse on High School reading lists, and this would have a better chance than many at engaging reluctant young readers. It got me in anyway.