On The Jellicoe Road (2003) is the full title of Melina Marchetta’s third book set in Sydney, Australia. The novel is about surviving tragedy, bonding with friends, having hope and finding love. For those unfamiliar with Ms. Marchetta’s work, she writes YA novels and she’s one of the best writers out there today. Her third novel, On the Jellicoe Road snagged the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in YA literature in 2009. Proving she’s an author worth reading.
Marchetta has a powerful voice. Most of her novels have the tendency to grab you from the first page. Unlike her first two books that I devoured back to back, I found the start of On the Jellicoe Road confusing so I set it aside to try later. Well, today is later and I’m glad I stuck with it. Relationships that develop between two people because they’ve lacked love or have had an abusive/broken childhood tend to be quite intense. I love these types of romances and this one has to be one of her best. I do have The Piper’s Son to finish so I reserve the right to retract that statement later.
“My name is Taylor Markham. I live on the Jellicoe Road.”
On The Jellicoe Road tells the story of 17 year old Taylor Markham and her emotional journey to find her mother, who abandoned her at a convenient store on the Jellicoe Road six years ago. That same day, she’s picked up by Hannah, a stranger who conveniently shows up and takes her back with her to her unfinished house out by the river. Taylor attends Jellicoe High, a state run school where Hannah works as a house caretaker. Since her mother left her, she’s had dreams of her and her father. She’s made one attempt to find her mother since Hannah found her at the 7-Eleven. She ran away from the Jellicoe school and hooked up with a “Cadet in year eight” but they only made it as far as Yass before the Brigadier found them and brought them back.
Hannah’s the only person in Taylor’s life who’s been there for her. Knowing that Hannah’s house is “unfinished” and it’s been like that for as long as she’s known her, she says that it gives her comfort because “people don’t leave unfinished houses.” Hannah’s been working on a manuscript and Taylor’s been reading it in pieces. It’s about five friends who form a bond after surviving a fatal car accident on the Jellicoe Road twenty years ago. Their story is told in flashbacks throughout the story. The story told via flashbacks is gripping in itself to a certain degree.
Most of the students at the Jellicoe school are made up of kids with absent mothers or fathers or both. Taylor’s mother was a drug user and her memories of her are few. Her mother wasn’t always like that, however. Something happened to her in her life that made her opt to take that path but I don’t want to say more about it.
One day Hannah disappears, to take care of an emergency, leaving Taylor somewhat unbalanced. The timing of it couldn’t be worse since Taylor’s been elected to be leader of the Underground Community and the territory wars are about to begin. As part of an outdoor education program, for six weeks the Cadets camp out near the Jellicoe school and intimidate the other houses. The territory wars have been apart of the Jellicoe School tradition for the past sixteen years. The Townies, the Cadets and the Underground Community make up the three groups, fighting for territory and protecting their assets out in bush country.
In these “territory wars” properties are negotiated, houses are forfeited and students are kidnapped according the the rules in the Purple Book. It seems to be a game they all take seriously. The Townies are led by Chaz Santegelo. I liked Chaz. The Underground Community (UC) is led by Taylor and the Cadets are led by Jonah Griggs, the boy Taylor bonded with at the train station three years ago while she was trying to find her mother. The two haven’t seen each other since they parted ways.
Word gets out that the Cadets have arrived and as Taylor says, it’s time to bring it on. That’s when the story really begins to take off for me, when the territory wars begin. Things gets tense real quick when her assigned deputy’s been caught by the Cadet’s. As UC leader, Taylor has to shine. She doesn’t want to fail and she can afford to. She has to worry about a coup in her own house if she doesn’t succeed.
When Taylor finally meets up with Jonah, the leader of the Cadets, she tries to reconcile the boy she once knew three years ago to the man he is now. Presently, his hair is cropped, eyes cold. This is a different Jonah Griggs that’s before her now and the not the boy she remembers on the train:
“I look over to the other side of the road and watch Griggs as he walks. It’s a lazy walk but so full of confidence that you want to be standing behind him all the way. How does Jonah get to be a ten? He sits on the 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 whole life I have a 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.”
Knowing the history these two have, I was looking forward to the reunion. Right from the start they give off sparks whenever they are around each other. I waited with baited breath for these two to show up in a scene together and when they did, they didn’t disappoint. The two are territorial enemies but underneath all of that hate there is a deep and abiding love for one another. A connection that only the two them understand. Their first kiss left me quite breathless. I can’t ever recall a romance that contained a scene this hot or memorable:
“I take deep breaths, looking at the town stretched in front of me. When I turn around, he cups my face in his hands and he kisses me so deeply that I don’t know who is breathing for who, but his mouth and tongue taste like warm honey. I don’t know how long it lasts but when I let go of him, I miss it instantly.”
There’s a lot more to be said about this story but I think I will stop here. I’m giving this book an A. There are some things I didn’t like about the story, for starters, the ending was a bit melodramatic, but the romance, the writing, the author’s voice is enough to give this book an almost perfect score. I read to be swept away from my everyday boring life. I can say with all sincerity that while reading this book, I was completely enthralled with the story and it’s characters. The mystery and the romance of it kept me turning the pages.
One of the themes in the story is one I agree with in that one should never pass up on love when it’s right there in your face. On the Jellicoe Road deserved all the attention and award(s) it’s received. Melina Marchetta is an exceptional writer and so is this story. The tone of the story is somewhat depressive because some parts are sad but there’s a balance of joy & laughter to give the story an uplifting message of hope. This book joins the few that after the last page is turned, leaves an impression. On the Jellicoe Road is a story that I won’t forget anytime soon. A.