Jasper Jones starts with a bang. Charlie Bucktin is at home in bed when Jasper, a neighborhood outcast and older boy, taps on his window asking for help. All of 13 and a bit of a bookworm, Charlie follows and is terrified by what Jasper shows him. By night’s end, he’s had his first drink, first cigarette, and is on the way to his first felony obstruction of justice charge. This book pulls no punches at the outset.

So it’s confusing when author Craig Silvey abandons that energetic pace for the rest of the book. The neighborhood gossip in this small Australian coal-mining town is certainly juicy—there’s marital infidelity, racism, incest, suicide and the vicious vandalism of a flowerbed—but each of these side trips pulls focus from the plot thread that opens the book. Charlie’s first-person voice on the page is mature beyond his 13 years (when pondering a world where bad things happen to good people, he describes it as “A world that’s three-quarters water, none of which can quench your thirst”). But in the midst of a potentially life-altering mystery, he idly goofs off with his best friend. And talks about cricket matches. For pages on end. A reader could be forgiven for shouting out, “Get back to the corpse!”

Given all that, there’s still a good coming-of-age story here, wound through all these other subplots. Charlie is alternately likable and ridiculous; in other words, a 13-year-old. And the half-Aborigine Jasper, caught between two worlds, could have sprung from the pages of those Mark Twain books Charlie’s always got his face buried in; he’s the Jim to Charlie’s Huck, and their relationship has an interesting arc. There’s much room for improvement here, but Jasper Jones is a brave and ambitious novel.

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