Finding Jasper

Finding Jasper is Lynne Leonhardt’s first novel and the first novel-length book published by Margaret River Press. The story centres around Gin (Virginia), the youngest of the three generations of Partridge family women whose stories are portrayed – Gin’s mother, Valerie; her aunt, Attie (Adeline); and her grandmother, Audrey.

The book is set between 1945 and 1963 and is told in three parts, opening in 1956 with Gin aged twelve and living with her mother, aunt and grandmother at ‘Grasswood’, the family farm in Western Australia’s southwest. Jasper, Gin’s father and Valerie’s husband, is missing, presumed dead, his plane having been shot down over occupied territory in Europe in April 1945. The second part of the novel slips back to 1945, with Valerie arriving in Australia with baby Gin, while Jasper is at war. The reader learns Valerie and Jasper’s story – of the unexpected wartime pregnancy and hasty marriage, and then of Valerie’s difficulties adapting and coping in her new country with her baby. The third part of the novel shifts to 1963 and a very different Australia. This section is Gin’s story. Valerie has moved on with her life, but after tragedy strikes, Gin must decide what she wants to do — and the possibilities for her are wide. It’s now the sixties and the societal constraints that had bound her mother and her aunt are loosening.

The absence of Jasper, the title character, pervades the book. His voice is heard only in the form of letters and occasional dialogue. The reader tries to glean as much as possible about his personality from these remnants, as does Gin, his daughter. Reading it brought to mind my grandfather – I’ve studied the photos of him, heard the family stories, I even have a recording of his voice. I feel like I know him, yet I never met him because he died the year before I was born.

And even though she knew it was impossible – she was only six weeks old when her father had waved his last goodbye – Gin wanted desperately to remember him. In the back of her mind, there was a man lifting her up to show her how the gramophone worked, and, from this cloudy image, the light tickle of a moustache from a face bent close to hers, and the waft of Californian Poppy. Even the sound of his voice and his words she could hear.

See that big brass arm? Well there’s a diamond in there.
Is it a real one?
Of course, sweetheart, and do you know something?
You are my little diamond.’

This novel is also a testament to the women who held Australia together during the war years. When Jasper goes to war, Attie, Gin’s aunt and Jasper’s twin, leaves her teaching job in the city and returns to run the family farm — single-handedly. She epitomises the women who took on hard, manual work and kept Australia ticking over during wartime.

Valerie, Gin’s mother, is Attie’s opposite. She has her own struggles as a displaced war bride, alone and with a baby, battling to keep up appearances and English traditions in this dry, foreign country. She writes to her parents:

‘There’s all the land in the world over here, more space than anyone could possibly want, yet I’ve never felt so miserable and claustrophobic in all my life.’

Lynne Leonhardt’s evocative prose and attention to detail bring to life a time long-gone and unknown to most living Australians these days, including myself. A time of chip bath-heaters, playing records on gramophones, listening to the King’s speech on the BBC, running outside to watch a plane fly overhead, reading the ‘Billabong’ series, and swimming in water holes unsupervised. Local Western Australian landmarks feature – Matilda Bay, the University, Steve’s, the Horseshoe Bridge – and the prose resounds with wonderful, old Aussie vernacular, including one of my favourites, ‘Go like the clappers’.

Being a story about Australian women during a period in which I wasn’t born, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this history. The story is multi-layered and I could easily write an essay on it. If you find it slow at the start, stick with it. The pace picks up and there are a couple of twists that will leave you reeling.

Favourite Character:

Attie, definitely Attie. How could you not love this lady who has survived a mastectomy, says she needs a husband like ‘a hole in the head’, dons her bib and brace overalls to drive the bullocks and plant the spuds, hand-feeds the stock in drought, helps the neighbours fight a fire, repairs the house after a storm, plucks the chook for dinner, then, at the end of the day, knits and plays violin. All in a day’s work for this Aussie woman …

Favourite Scene:

I loved this tender passage when Attie, as a child, climbs into bed with her mother:

‘The sobs were soundless, she could still make out her mother’s heaving shoulders and the white wings of a handkerchief waving over her nose. Sheets rustled. Hairpins clinked as they fell one by one into the china dish beside the bed. When the plaits were freed, her mother began to whisper, swishing the brush in long even strokes, and looping it back until her long hair fell into a curtain across her face. And all along, Attie lay there waiting. She held her breath, straining to hear her mother’s murmurs long after they’d been absorbed into the shadows.’

Favourite Quote:

‘Then her mother had held her by the shoulders while her mouth said mmmmw to her cheek.’

I love this description of an adult kissing a child. As a kid, I hated it when someone’s mouth did that to my cheek.

Finding Jasper, by Lynne Leonhardt, Margaret River Press 2012, $24.00. Click here to visit Lynne’s blog.

This is another review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.