A couple of weeks ago, small Western Australia publisher Margaret River Press sent me a review copy of their first fiction offering, Finding Jasper. It’s by debut novelist Lynne Leonhardt, was successfully submitted for a doctorate in creative writing, and earned Leonhardt the Dean’s Prize.
It is 1956, and twelve-year old Ginny has arrived at the family farm, ‘Grasswood’, in the southwest Western Australia. She has been left in the care of her lively, idiosyncratic aunt, Attie, while her mother, an English war bride, returns home for a holiday. Ginny is the youngest of three generations of very different women, whose lives are profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper: son, brother, husband, father. A fixed point in all their lives is the landscape, layered with beauty and fear, challenge and consolation, isolation and freedom.
The novel is beautifully written.
I read it almost in one sitting and promptly rang up my mum to see if she wanted to borrow it. Then I emailed an elderly poet and memoirist in WA to ask her if she would like to review it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. As I hit “send”, I thought of another friend I think would enjoy it, a writer of historical fiction. It’s that kind of book: it deserves to find readers and I’m happy to recommend it and pass it around.
Yet, as I was reading Finding Jasper, several other texts kept clamouring for attention at the back of my mind. Sometimes these texts echoed the content, sometimes they were in counterpoint, until it seemed I wasn’t just reading one book, but several. Each sang together in a rich, complex, intricate piece – a fugue, if you will.
The musical metaphor is apt, as music is central to Finding Jasper.
The main character, Virginia – or “Gin”, plays the piano initially and wants to be a professional musician. During the Second World War, Virginia’s mother worked in the British army as a Morse Code specialist; Leonhardt makes the point of telling the reader that the opening bars for Beethoven’s 5th – the famous, “da-da-da-daah” – is the Morse signal for “V”, and came to stand for “Victory”. In the lead up to the novel’s most emotionally charged moments, Virginia plays a sombre Bach prelude as an act of defiance toward her neglectful, card-playing mother. The aftermath is devastating.
Music haunts Finding Jasper, by turns sad, angry, evocative, challenging and hip.
Of the various texts that echoed as I read Finding Jasper, three are recent releases by Australian women. The first is Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers: it, too, more tangentially, deals with the impact of war on the lives of Australians (reviewed here). The second is Liz Byrski’s novel, In the Company of Strangers – another book I was happy to pass on to my mum. Like Finding Jasper, it’s set in WA’s south-west, and touches on the lives of English immigrants after the Second World War. The third is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (review forthcoming). All four novels depict women who don’t conform to gender-typical roles, some of whom behave “badly”.
I want to see more women like this, I’ve decided. Flawed women. Women whose poor choices and less-than-desirable mothering is explained by their personalities and their histories, histories of trauma, abuse and dislocation. These kind of women feel real to me.
Already the characters of Finding Jasper are haunting my memory.