Three coming-of-age novels that introduce readers to West Australia are Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust and Breath by Tim Winton.
The transition from childhood to adulthood has long been a popular subject tackled in the pages of literature throughout the world.
Set against the backdrop of the harsh Western Australian landscape, these three rites-of-passage stories tackle not only the complexities of growing up but of doing so in small and isolated communities where the elements are as harsh as the realities of life.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Craig Silvey wrote Jasper Jones out of his passion for the southern gothic fiction of Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. He describes it as “a coming-of-age regional mystery novel, stuffed inside a nervous little love story, garnished with family drama and adolescent escapism and anguish.”
Jasper Jones is set in a fictional Western Australian town called Corrigan in the mid-sixties against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. It is a great example of what small-town life in rural Australia was like at the time.
The narrator is Charlie Bucktin, a nerdy, intelligent, sensitive, book-loving and somewhat unpopular 13-year-old boy. Certain aspects of Charlie are autobiographical as Silvey was also raised in a similar world and he too had to hide his love of books.
Jasper Jones is an older Aboriginal boy who is portrayed as the town’s bad egg and is the scapegoat. He is stereotyped and misunderstood. The reason why the two characters come together in the opening pages of the book locks them into a secret pact and from then on we take their side against the so-called honourable citizens of the town.
The book has now won a bag of national and international awards and is a great insider’s look at growing up in a small Australia country town.
Jasper Jones (Allen and Unwin, 2009, ISBN: 9781742372624, 368 pages).
Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust
Boy on a Wire is a coming-of-age memoir set in 1960s Western Australia that looks at growing up in a boys’ boarding school.
Jon Doust has dedicated this fictionalised autobiographical work to all those boys who experienced bullying and harsh schooling days and have carried their scars into manhood. It draws on Doust’s experience of being sent, in his early teens, from a small country town to a city boarding school.
The main protagonist is Jack Muir (Doust); hot-headed, smart-mouthed and totally loveable. We follow him on his journey through the perils of school life as he grapples with what is good and evil in the world, takes on the bullies, both children and adults, and lives in constant fear of everyone, including God, his superhero.
Boy on a Wire (Fremantle Press, 2009, ISBN 9781921361456, 236 pages.)
Breath by Tim Winton
Tim Winton’s fabulous novel Breath is the story of two surfer boys growing up in a remote coastal region in Western Australia forever chasing the perfect wave in lieu of going to school.
Winton is a master at depicting Australian life so this novel is a great place to start with if you are new to Australian literature. Other recommended favourites include Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and The Turning.
In Breath, Pikelet and Loonie eat, sleep and breathe surfing. So too does Sando, the older hippie they meet who encourages them to overcome their fears and live for the adrenaline and thrill that comes with high risk-taking and battling the big surf breaks.
There is much more to Winton’s story than surfing. This economical novel covers some of the big themes like addiction to danger, life experiences in youth, the passing of time and ultimately, death.