Jessica, by Bryce Courtenay

Nine stars

There is something about a novel by Bryce Courtenay that sets my mind at ease. The way he tells stories and the silky flow of the narrative has me eager each time I am able to (re)read his books, all of which I have found to be stellar. This story focuses on the life of Jessica Bergman and her family, who are living in rural Australia soon after the country’s formal independence. Jessica is unlike the other girls around town—including her sister, Meg—who prefer to remain prim and proper. Rather, Jessica is happy to get dirt under her fingernails as she is reluctantly given work shearing sheep alongside her father. While first seen to be an outcast and the lesser sex, Jessica soon befriends Billy and Jack, leading to a strong platonic connection between them all. When Billy is seriously hurt and suffers a debilitating brain injury, he becomes a pariah and ‘dim-witted helper’ to Jack’s family. One day, Billy comes to Jessica with news that he’s committed a horrible crime, one that no one will understand, especially in his altered mental state. Jessica soon realises that the only way to save Billy from the town mob is to get him to the police magistrate. Their journey is long and slow, but Jessica is determined to find justice for her friend. When the law takes over, it is the influence of those with power, administering it through a lens of judgmental beliefs, that sees Billy face harsh consequences. Meanwhile, Meg and her mother have a plan that could secure the elder Bergman girl into a life of luxury, or at least ensure her status, though an unsuspecting Jack has no idea that he’s soon to be lured into a trap. Seeing what’s happening, Jessica tries to strike back, only to be silenced and used in the larger plot as well. As the story progresses, Jessica comes of age and must grow up faster, not only because of her family’s schemes, but as she comes face to face with some of the racially-motivated laws on the books that seek to subjugate portions of the population. Jessica must struggle and discover that she alone has the power to shape her own future, and those closest to her. A brilliant piece by Bryce Courtenay that shows the power this man has when putting a story to paper. Highly recommended for those who love a strong tale of self-discovery and determination in the face of ever-growing doubt and obstacles.

I have had a long-standing admiration for Bryce Courtenay and his books, all of which have captivated me early in my reading experience. While they are usually long and quite tangential, their thread is one that can be easily followed and the plot constantly evolves, which may explain my vague summary above (which may appease those who chirp about my reviews being too long and revealing for their ivory tower reading sentiments). Courtenay creates a number of strong characters and utilises them effectively to shape the direction in which his narrative moves. Jessica is, of course, the central character in this piece and her life is shaped by those around her. Moving from the age of fourteen through to her mid-twenties, Jessica’s life is influenced by a number of events that take her along paths that could not have been foreseen. She becomes one person that the reader cannot help but admire and her tribulations, while surely placed in a ‘soap opera’ type drama, are usually grounded in something substantial. Others find their place in the narrative and offer poignant life moments to give Jessica even more depth. This is something Courtenay does well and seems to be able to effectively portray in most of his novels, as well as using some of his standing character types in each novel (ie, Jews, blacks). The story, rich with description and development, takes on an interesting approach. Courtenay opens each ‘book’ with a summary of events, then backtracks to play them out through a series of progressive vignettes, offering the reader foresight into what will come, then letting the narrative take control,. It is effective and does not present too many issues for the reader who enjoys a surprise within their reading experience. The plot is strong and well-grounded, providing not only personal growth for Jessica, but touching on a number of political and social issues of the day, not all of which have been adequately resolved close to a century later. Courtenay may have passed on, but his books resonate with me and I hope that by the time my son is ready to tackle them, they will appeal to his passion for reading and learning.

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for another wonderful re-read. I find myself so energised when I have read one of your books. Let’s ride that wave through the next little while.

This book fulfills Topic #5: Name That Book, for the Equinox #4 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: