Book Review – Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road. Where do I begin?

What seems like a frivolous opening about territory wars (i.e. a bunch of teenagers taking their land way too seriously) in the Australian outbacks soon reveals itself to be much more complex and layered and cross-generational than expected.

The first sentence strikes you right off the bat – My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die – so you know there is more to this story than meets the eye. Taylor Markham, the reluctant leader of the school’s underground community, was abandoned by her mother at age 11. And at 14, she ran away from boarding school, only to be brought back by the brigadier, a mysterious stranger who terrifies Taylor but has obvious ties with her guardian Hannah.

Taylor is on a quest to find her mother and make sense of her recurring dreams about a boy in a tree:

I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree. I tell him stories. About the Jellicoe School and the Townies and the Cadets from a school in Sydney. I tell him about the war between us for territory. And I tell him about Hannah, who lives in the unfinished house by the river. Hannah, who is too young to be hiding away from the world. Hannah, who found me on the Jellicoe Road six years ago.

Meanwhile, the territory wars sees Taylor reunited with Jonah Griggs, the leader of the visiting Townies whom she met on a train when she embarked on her search for her mother. ***spoiler alert*** Jonah, who called the school and had the brigadier bring her back, who thwarted her attempt to find her mother. Jonah, who had killed his abusive father and had meant to end his life until he met Taylor.

As she learns more about the founders of the warring communities (the Townies, the Cadets, and the Jellicoe School students), who were really just a group of friends whose fate intertwined as a result of a fatal car accident one of them saved the other four from, Taylor learns the truth about her family, and the beautiful, tragic fates of those who met on Jellicoe Road.

Again, this has to be asked: what is in those Australian waters? There’s just something about Australian YA lit that manages to worm its way into your heart, park itself there, and wreck you from within in the best possible way.

Like Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley and Stolen by Lucy Christopher and This is Shyness by Leanne Hall, Jellicoe Road seemed like a lighthearted read, with funny moments like this:

“So, like I asked, what’s with the nightie?”
“It smells like what I always think mothers smell like,” I tell him honestly, knowing I don’t have to explain.
He nods. “My mum has one just the same and you have no idea how disturbing it is that it’s turning me on.”

And like The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, it was magical enough to make the story a little surreal and that much more enchanting.

But like those other books, Jellicoe Road is so richly layered and poignant. You fall completely in love with the characters because they seem so real and relatable – their heartbreaks are your heartbreaks, and your happiness is a result of theirs, and you’re just so thankful when they find some reprieve.

There are truths that you discover and learn together with the protagonist, who is just figuring out how to live and love despite being abandoned when she was a child:

And moments that make your heart break for her:

“What do you want from me?” he asks.
What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him.
More.

And the other characters, like Narnie:

“My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.

I counted.

It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La. We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away, because I wanted to see the ocean
and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey. I remember asking, ‘What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?’ and my father said, ‘Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand,’ and that was the last thing he ever said.”

And Jonah:

He sits on a train with me when we’re fourteen and he weeps, tearing at his hair, bashing his head with the palm of his hand, self-hatred pouring out of him like blood from a gut wound in a war movie, and for the first time in my life I have purpose. I am the holder of the grief and pain and guilt and passion of Jonah Griggs and as we sit huddled on the floor of the carriage, he allows me to hold him, to say, “Shhh, Jonah, it wasn’t your fault.” While his body still shakes from the convulsions, he takes hold of my hand and links my fingers with his and I feel someone else’s pain for the first time that I can remember.

And of course, there’s the HUGE plot twist that Doesn’t. Let. Up. You sort of snowball towards the end, where it all comes to a gratifying revelation. I remember stopping dead in my tracks (yes, I read while I walk) when Jonah made his revelation (see above), having to turn off my Kindle to take a breath and process it all; I remember aching for Jonah and wanting to give him a hug, even though HE’S NOT REAL.

I love how the fates of the Tate, Narnie, Fitz, Webb, and Jude collided on Jellicoe Road, and how their friendship turned into kinship, though I hated how life destroyed them because I had come to love them like they were my friends.

Plus, Marchetta did a brilliant job of tying dual story lines. Attempting exactly that with No Room in Neverland, I’m learning a lot about this technique from reading Jellicoe Road.

Vinaya’s review of the book pretty much sums up my reaction:

This book is so fucked up. Completely, totally fucked up. Everybody in it is fucked up, and living their lives is fucked up, and by the time you’re done with it, you’re fucked up, but you can’t tell because your head is cloudy from all the tears you’ve shed getting through this fucked-up book.

I hate On The Jellicoe Road. I hate books that make me cry, and this book made me want to weep tears of blood for all that lost youth and promise, and the pain of loss and the promise of the future. If somebody had told me how mixed-up and emotional this book was going to make me feel, I would have abandoned it in a corner and floated off to the simple uncomplicated world of supernatural ass-kicking, where nobody dies and even if they do, they rarely stay dead.

Like I said, this is one book that wrecks you completely. And you gladly let it. It’s the kind of book that leaves its indelible mark on you, and you need a day or two to stew in its brilliance and process it entirely because there are just too many emotions to digest that it elicited.

But now that I’m done with it (trust me, I tried as hard as I could to put off getting to the end), WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO READ NOW THAT WILL FILL THIS VOID? Perhaps another Melina Marchetta book, The Piper’s Son, will do the trick.

this week’s reading list

Currently reading:

1. On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

I read her other books, Saving Francesca and Looking for Alibrandi when I was 14, and I fell completely in love. Marchetta’s writing was the contact I had with first Australian YA fiction, and it opened up the way I saw how contemporary fiction could be written. Full of heart and characters so real you wish they were your friends because you feel like you understand them and that they would understand you too.

I tried reading Jellicoe Road a few years back, but got thrown off by the complicated territory wars that didn’t seem to relate to the main plot. Plus, the story was, like The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee (another terrific Australian YA author), told in a non-linear narrative. So it was kind of confusing, especially with the host of characters.

But I’m appreciating it more now during my second attempt. The poignant moments are never overdone, and I’m beginning to think it’s an Australian thing. The story SEEMS light-hearted and funny, but the words worm their way right into your heart.

2. Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo

I don’t want this story to end! The final installment in the Grisha trilogy is just as dramatic and all-encompassing and swoon-worthy and all around awesome I can’t even! From the changing dynamics between Alina and Mal, Alina’s gradual self-actualisation, the return of the fantabulous Nikolai Lantsov (someday, I aspire to have his level of confidence, wit, resourcefulness, and charm), the seductive power of the Darkling, and Bardugo’s skill in world-building, book #3 is the most complex and enthralling in the trilogy, as it should be.

3. Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins

This compendium is so delectable I could eat it up. It’s like a little cabinet of wonders, a treasure trove of bite-sized info on, well, exquisite things like the evolution of the Japanese kimono, unicorns, alchemy, tea, alfresco dining, fireworks, and masquerades. And okay, some of the entries weren’t as scintillating (I don’t think we need so much info on strings or tassels), but most of the entries, which are subjects in varied fields, set my mind alight with ideas and sometimes that’s all you ask for in a book.

While searching for quotes from Jellicoe Road, I found this passage that made me spazz out from the GORGEOUS, lyrical imagery:

Google tells me it’s from The Last Unicorn, a 1968 fantasy novel by Peter S. Beagle. Wikipedia tells me it’s a story centered on a unicorn who, believing she’s the last of her kind in the world, embarks on a journey to find out what happened to the others. She meets a host of diverse characters along the way, each of them bringing her closer to her goal. 

If that passage isn’t reason enough to read it, the slew of five-star reviews on Goodreads definitely is. Now, off to get my hands on the book. 

Happy mid-week! :0)