Every so often I read a book that makes me homesick because it captures the sights and sounds of Australia so very eloquently that you can practically smell the aroma of eucalyptus wafting off the page and feel the harsh summer sun beating down on you. Lynne Leonhardt's wonderfully self-assured debut novel Finding Jasper is one of those books.
A Western Australian novel
Set in Western Australia between 1945 and 1963, the novel is divided into three parts.
It opens in 1956, when 12-year-old Gin (short for Virginia) is sent to her aunt's remote farm while her English mother returns to London on a three-month holiday. It is Gin's first time away from home and she is upset by the prospect of being abandoned in this manner. But she soon comes to love her stay with Aunt Attie, especially the stories she learns about her father (Attie's brother), who died shortly after she was born.
The second part moves backwards in time to January 1945 and tells the tale of Gin's mother, Valerie, and her first husband, Jasper, an Australian fighter pilot in Bomber Command. The pair meet and marry in England while Jasper is stationed at the (fictional) RAF base Wickerton during the Second World War. When Gin is born, Valerie emigrates to Australia ahead of her husband. But he is killed in action and never returns home.
The third and final part jumps ahead to January 1963 and largely revolves around 19-year-old Gin, whose life is still profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper, the father she never knew. While living at home with her mother, her step-father Noel and her little step-sister, Dottie, a family tragedy changes things forever. Gin must now decide what kind of path she wants to forge for her own life.
Detailed and highly nuanced
The above outline is a mere thumbnail portrait of an exceptionally detailed and highly nuanced novel which essentially shows the immediate and long-term repercussions of Jasper's death on three women — Attie, Valerie and Gin (and to a lesser extent Gin's grandmother).
It's a confident and ambitious novel, written in lovely, sensitive prose, and despite the sometimes dramatic subject matter, it completely shies away from sentiment and showy flashes of emotion. It's all rather restrained and packs a more powerful punch because of it.
The characters are all wonderfully realised — Attie is the very essence of a strong, self-reliant, independent woman who just gets on with things, running a farm in harsh terrain and a difficult climate, without any male help; Valerie is uptight, anxious, fearful (the result of having lived through the Blitz) and hugely disappointed by her lot, but is unable to share her feelings, so comes across as snooty and judgemental; and Gin is spirited and inquisitive, occasionally shy and lonely, but full of optimism for the future.
The landscape and the wildlife are also central characters, and Leonhardt writes about them so beautifully and with such a visual eye, I could easily see this novel being turned into a film or TV series. I particularly loved the way she described things through the eyes of Valerie, an outsider, who cannot fathom the heat and the dust and the isolation of her new home when she first arrives in Australia after months at sea.
'Well,' said Attie, 'at least it must be a relief to be on dry land again.'
'Yes, of course,' replied Valerie, although the land still looked decidedly barren. She sat silently absorbing the changing Australian landscape. For a while, the rise and fall of the sand dunes offered glimpses of the ocean through the low-lying scrub. Salt lakes appeared through the trees and shrubs. Bloody hell, she thought, and closed her eyes.
While I wouldn't necessarily label Finding Jasper an historical novel (on the basis it may put people off), it is very reminiscent of a particular time and place — that of post-war Australia. This part of the country, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian Ocean, was not isolated from the war — the Japanese bombed many parts along the Western Australian coast and there was a real fear of invasion.
And in the latter section, there's a very real sense of a rapidly changing world, with references to the Beatles, JFK's assassination, Communism and the "yellow peril".
I think the highest compliment I can pay this novel is to say that certain elements of it reminded me of another great novel from Western Australia — Randolph Stow's The Merry-go-round in the Sea, which I reviewed favourably several years ago.
On the whole, Finding Jasper is a hugely enjoyable and acutely sensitive story about love, loss and family, the kind of book that deserves a wide audience. It will appeal to those who love intelligent novels that explore the impact of war on survivors and are peopled by characters you come to truly care about.
As ever, Australian novels can sometimes be hard to source in the wider world. But for international readers, it can be ordered in paperback direct from the Margaret River Press website or in electronic form from the following online stores: