Perhaps because of my love of short fiction, I sometimes feel that first-time novelists can’t resist the urge to tell too much; to be too earnest in their quest to have a reader understand, to be unable to trust some of the background to reader imagination. Lynne Leonhardt has resisted admirably and Finding Jasper shows none of the insecurities of many debut novels.
The story opens in 1957. Gin (Virginia) is an aspiring pianist growing up in rural Western Australia without a father. Gin’s father is the Jasper of the title; a man who has been missing since the war, a man that Gin never knew and so didn’t realise how much she missed.
In a sublime passage early in the book, Leonhardt hints at the mystery that is Jasper:-
Jasper. Attie [Jasper’s twin] always seemed to say it softly and swiftly, half under her breath, like it was some kind of secret. Jasper. Jasper? Perhaps it was her accent but the way she said it sounded more like whisper. (24)
This mini-expose on Jasper’s name was almost hypnotic so that every time I read his name from thereon in, I read it in a whisper. Jasper is like a part of the story you can’t see; like the weather or the milieu, he just is. He is a whisper in the background.
The timeline shifts back a year to 1956, before leaping back further to 1945 and gradually forward to 1963, then 1965. I enjoyed this time-shifting, space-shifting style.
Leonhardt’s imagery is swift and subtle: rickety steps that have been “hollowed with time and wear” (17); wild grass that “tongued its way between the rusty heights of the bulrushes, reaching up to feed off the sun” (25); a wooden dinghy rocking in the shallows “as if trying to slough off the remainder of its flaking blue paintwork” (25).
Here’s Gin’s stepfather shaving: “bum out, chin jutting forward and mouth drawn in a downward U” (186). Just stop and savour that description for a moment. Perfect.
And now listen to Gin’s mother as she held her by the shoulders “while her mouth said ‘mmmmw’ to her cheek” (208).
The farmyard chooks serve as motif, acting as barometers throughout the novel to punctuate the minutiae of daily life. When the pudgy hands of Gin’s piano teacher peck at the keys, they remind her of her aunt’s “fat white hens” pecking at seed (17). There’s the familiarity with the hens that comes about through the daily egg collection. “Funny creatures, chooks. So fastidious the way they picked up their scaly feet from in amongst the dust and the food scraps” (53). And the social life in the barnyard, not unlike a human gathering, “They had almost stopped their racket, hoarse no doubt from their constant gasping and all that bock-bock-bocking” (54). The chooks are part of the landscape, emphasising daily routine through the generations:-
Through the kitchen window she could see Audrey’s silhouette winding through the redgums, the curve of her widow’s hump and her plump arm swaying in balance as she carried the scrap bucket over to the chooks. (85)
It is no secret that I am biased toward Australian authors with authentic Australian voices telling Australian stories that resonate with my Australian mentality. By the same token, I am dismayed when such Australianness becomes contrived, when phrases and sentences are pushed forward awkwardly to give a sort of forced Ockerishness to a tale. Thankfully, there’s no sign of that here.
In Finding Jasper Leonhardt paints Australia well, giving us – casually, almost nonchalantly – the half kerosene tin mailbox, cotton-wool stuffed Bex bottles, kikuyu, lamb cutlets in butcher’s paper tied with string, swooping wattle-birds feasting on kangaroo paws and bottlebrush blossoms, the “creedle-crawdle song” of the magpie.
Other countries find their way into this Aussie narrative: Leonhardt draws out the colourful vistas of Ceylon with a tender touch, and writes of wartime London with the respect deserving of the ‘Mother Country’. But Australia – in its various forms, the good and bad – forms the backdrop for most of the book. I enjoyed this passage, showing the bush that I know well from the perspective of a newcomer:-
There was something depressing about the Australian light, so bright and strong that it showed up every stain and flaw. It wasn’t just the napkins, which had been boiled thoroughly in the copper under her sweating brow. Everything about Grasswood looked dirty and tattered, especially this time of day. (95)
Finding Jasper represents a double debut; it is Lynne Leonhardt’s first novel and it is the first full-length work of fiction published by Margaret River Press. Congratulations to author and publisher.
I’m grateful to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers for hosting this post on her site. It gives the publishers and the author a well-deserved wider audience.
Leonhardt, Lynne. Finding Jasper, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, Australia, 2012.
Available direct from Margaret River Press