REVIEW: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Dear Ms. Marchetta,
I have a bone to pick with you. I’ve got a packed read-and-review schedule for the next month or so, and I need to be able to move from book to book. But you’ve made that impossible. Yes, I blame you. It’s your fault that your book, Jellicoe Road, left me so drained and dazed that I can’t read anything else.
I tried. I tried a sexy historical romance. I tried a contemporary erotic novel. I tried a thought-provoking science fiction story. I tried one of my very favorite books from last year. I even eyed another YA. I put them all back down after a page or two.
It’s not that they were bad. They just weren’t your book. They weren’t Jellicoe Road.
It really isn’t fair of you to write a book that’s so beautiful and powerful that everything else pales in comparison.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me explain that when I picked up this book to read for Keishon’s TBR challenge, I was cheating a bit. Yes, technically speaking Jellicoe Road was first published in 2006 (The Australian edition called On the Jellicoe Road), but the American edition came out in 2008, and it’s only been sitting in my TBR pile for a few months.
I first heard of this book here on the YA YA YAs blog. Then I heard that it won the American Library Association’s Printz Award. Then it was selected for DABWAHA. At that point I bit the bullet and bought it in hardcover, a purchase that was worth every penny and then some.
I read Jellicoe Road for the TBR challenge because this month’s theme is “Tortured hero or tortured heroine,” and I had the sense that this book had its share of tortured characters. Boy, was I right about that.
The heroine of the story, Taylor Markham, is a seventeen year old boarding school student at the Jellicoe School, which is about 600 kilometers from Sydney. Taylor was abandoned by her mother in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven when she was just eleven years old. A woman named Hannah began taking care of her at that point, and Taylor suspects Hannah knows something about her mother, but whatever it is, Hannah won’t reveal it.
Taylor enrolled in the Jellicoe School when she was thirteen. When she was fourteen, a hermit whispered something in her ear and then shot himself. But Taylor can’t remember what he told her, and she has other memory gaps as well. She also dreams about a boy in a tree who knows things about her. Sometimes her life feels like a mystery that she can’t solve.
Just after the hermit committed suicide in front of her, Taylor took off to try and find her mother. On the way to Sydney she met a boy named Jonah Griggs, who is rumored to have killed his father, and who is one of the cadets, military school students who camp near Taylor’s school for six weeks every spring and every fall.
The kids from Taylor’s school have a territorial war with the cadets and with a third group of students who live in the town, known as the townies. So Taylor’s running off with a cadet was not looked on well by her fellow students. But Taylor and Jonah made a connection. Taylor opened her heart to Jonah and trusted him, and when he called an adult to come and take them back to their schools, she felt betrayed.
Now, three years later, Taylor is unwilling to trust anyone again. She presents a hardened exterior to the world. Despite this, Taylor is chosen through some convoluted politics to be the leader of the Jellicoe School kids in the next round of wars. The leader of the townies is Chaz Santangelo, who has a history with Taylor’s friend and supporter, Raffaela. And the leader of the cadets is Jonah Griggs. So Taylor must come face to face with Jonah again, this time as two leaders of enemy factions.
And just as this is about to happen, Hannah, the one constant in Taylor’s life since her mother abandoned her, disappears from her house without a word to Taylor.
As this story unfolds, told in Taylor’s first person narration POV, it is interspersed with third person italicized fragments of another story, about a group of kids who were involved in a car accident that killed the parents of three of them. The connection between the two stories isn’t revealed until deep into the book, so I won’t say what it is.
Can Taylor lead the Jellicoe School? Where has Hannah gone to? Will Taylor be able to piece together the secrets from her past, or unearth her lost memories? What about Jonah Griggs? Is he truly the enemy, or does he care for Taylor more than he allows her to see? And how is the story of the other group of kids relevant?
The above is a summary of what the book is about, but it doesn’t do justice to how moving it is, how good the writing is, or how memorable the characters are. Taylor is indelibly so. Although she has a lot to be tortured about, she is the last person to wear her suffering on her sleeve. Instead, she has a stony demeanor.
Here, for example, is an exchange between Hannah and Taylor which takes place when Hannah informs Taylor of the transfer of some girls to the dormitory Taylor is in charge of:
“Transfers,” she says, handing me the sheet. I don’t bother even looking at it.
“My House is full. No more transfers,” I tell her.
“There are some fragile kids on that list.”
“Then why transfer them to me?”
“Because you’ll be here during the holidays.”
“What makes you think I don’t have anywhere to go these holidays?”
“I want you to take them under your wing, Taylor.”
“I don’t have wings, Hannah.”
But for all her prickliness, Taylor’s inner thoughts eventually reveal her vulnerability. Here’s a scene that comes when she is floating on water:
My body becomes a raft and there’s this part of me that wants just literally to go with the flow. To close my eyes and let it take me. But I know sooner or later I will have to get out, that I need to feel the earth beneath my feet, between my toes–the splinters, the bindi-eyes, the burning sensation of hot dirt, the sting of cuts, the twigs, the bites, the heat, the discomfort, the everything. I need desperately to feel it all, so when something wonderful happens, the contrast will be so massive that I will bottle the impact and keep it for the rest of my life.
If Taylor isn’t what she appears to be at first, neither are many of the other characters. Their layers are peeled back gradually, and involve discoveries of things neither Taylor nor the readers know, so I don’t want to reveal them. In fact, it takes a few chapters to figure out exactly what is going on, but that is part of the charm of the book, because the reader’s confusion mirrors the sense of mystery Taylor feels about her own life. Some of the puzzles take most of the book to be put together, and although I guessed at certain truths before Taylor understood these things, that did not lessen my enjoyment of the book.
In fact, “enjoyment” seems like too mild a word. After its slow start, the book gathered more and more momentum, until I was completely swept away from thoughts of my own life. I became so invested in Taylor and the other characters in the book that some sections seemed heartbreaking to read, albeit in a cathartic and healing way. I laughed and cried — or, as my husband put it, “blubbered.” When I finished this book, my tear ducts felt completely empty.
I loved the intricacy of this story, the way so many small and seemingly unimportant details turned out to be important in the end, the way the different threads connected. It’s a rare book that seems so seamless when I finish it, that takes such complete hold of me with its magic.
Despite its YA designation, Jellicoe Road deals with a lot of adult themes, and includes a romance and even a couple of brief sex scenes, so while I would not recommend it for younger kids, I do wholeheartedly recommend it to older teens and to adults.
Thank you, Ms. Marchetta, for writing such a powerful, beautiful, unforgettable book. A for Jellicoe Road.
This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook although this is a HarperTeen release and HT is fairly good about ebook releases. At least you know who to contact if you want a legitimate digital copy.