Aug 2, 2012

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

The protagonist of Jellicoe Road, seventeen-year-old Taylor Markham, was abandoned by her mother when she was only eleven. Ever since she has lived at the Jellicoe School, an isolated Australian boarding school whose students are mostly orphans or the sons and daughters of absent parents. Every September, there’s a war between the Jellicoe students, the “Townies”, and a group of cadets who camp near the school for a few months. The wars are all about controlling territory and making sure the leading group has the upper hand. Because Taylor has lived at the school the longest, she reluctantly becomes this year’s student leader for the war.

Intertwined with Taylor’s narrative there’s another story, about five teenagers (also students, townies and cadets) who lived on Jellicoe over twenty years before. This story begins with a horrifying car accident that changes the lives of all involved. As the novel progresses, we begin to see how Taylor’s story is connected to what happened in the past. These revelations slowly add a whole new level of emotional resonance to the present day events.

This is a vague and clumsy plot summary that barely gives you an idea of what Jellicoe Road is about, but this is one of those novels where what you think it happening going in turns out to be very different from reality. Everyone had warned me that the first half of Jellicoe Road was confusing, and that did turn out to be the case. But it also turned out that it was, much like in books such as Chime, the kind of confusing where I just couldn’t look away.

Jellicoe Road reads a bit like a dystopia at first: all you know is that there’s a war on; a war these kids take absolutely seriously and that seems to have real costs and consequences. There’s a pervasive sense of threat and unease in the first hundred pages or so – you don’t quite know what’s going on, but you do know that Taylor’s world is most definitely not a safe place.

But here’s the really brilliant thing, the thing Marchetta accomplishes so impressively: as Jellicoe Road progresses, this semi-dystopian reality falls apart and a different world begins to emerge – a world in which the characters are nothing but regular teenagers playing a game and having fun together. And you begin to see how much of that initial sense of menace and hostility, of living in a very frightening world, emanates from Taylor’s narration itself. To say she has trust issues would be an understatement, and her narration perfectly captures how unsettling it is to be her, to live in a constant state of mistrust. Jellicoe Road initially portrays its protagonist’s social world as a dystopia because that’s what it looks like to one frightened, lonely teenage girl.

When the tone of the narrative begins to change, this signals changes in Taylor herself. When we first meet her, she has very low expectations of people and barely makes any emotional investment in those around her. She pushes people away and sabotages her relationship with anyone who threatens to become too important to her, all because she’s terrified of getting hurt. But bit by bit, she begins to give herself permission to be vulnerable, to develop trust, to tell the people around her loudly and clearly that yes, they matter to her, and yes, she needs them close. Jill described this aspect of the novel perfectly in her review:
In spite of all this need, however, for love and friendship from other people, Taylor wants them to figure it out without her asking; that way there is no risk to her. So she doesn’t ask because she doesn’t have trust, and thus she doesn’t receive. But as the story progresses, Taylor comes to realize that life is too short for waiting for more from it, and if she wants more, she needs “to go and get it, demand it, take hold of it with all my might, and do the best I can with it.” Her growing process is both painful and exhilarating in its realism. It is perhaps expressed best by her realization about sex the first time she has it: it might hurt; hurt a lot even; but you can figure out together how to do it better until it becomes something else; until it becomes everything.
This process happens in relation to romance, to friendship, and to family ties, and I love that Jellicoe Road gives all these different relationships similar weight.

There’s much more to this novel that I haven’t even touched on – as I said, there’s a past story with present-day consequences, and the way it’s slowly revealed is gripping and very moving. But the reason why I loved Jellicoe Road as much as I did was Marchetta’s brilliant evocation of the complexities involved in forming any kind of close personal relationship, and her honest and perceptive portrayal of the fragile process of building trust and keeping it alive.

Memorable bits:
I remember love. It’s what I have to keep on reminding myself. It’s funny how you can forget everything except people loving you. Maybe that’s why humans find it so hard getting over love affairs. It’s not the pain they’re getting over, it’s the love.

‘Sometimes I forget just how bad he was, so all I can remember is that he’s dead because of me. It’s unnatural, what I did. Sometimes I’m thinking about it in the middle of class and I’ll walk out and ring my mum and say, “I remember that he took us to the circus, and that we were laughing, so why did I do what I did?” She always has an answer. “And that night he smashed my head against the glass cabinet, Jonah. Do you remember that? And when he burnt your brother with the cigarettes, Jonah?”
‘Other times I’ll wake her in the middle of the night and say, “He told me that no one loved us as much as he did.” And she’ll say, “And then he walked around the house holding a gun, threatening to kill us all, because he wanted us to be together forever.”’
Griggs looks up at us. ‘What happens when she’s not my memory anymore? What happens when she’s not around to tell me about his belt leaving scars across my two-year old brother’s face or when he whacked her so hard that she lost her hearing for a week? Who’ll be my memory?’
Santangelo doesn't miss a beat. ‘I will. Ring me.’
‘Same,’ Raffy says.
I look at him. I can’t even speak because if I do I know I’ll cry but I smile and he knows what I’m thinking.
(This scene = all the tears.)

They read it too: Rhapsody in Books, My Friend Amy, Alita Reads, Books & Other Thoughts, Book Addiction, Jenny’s Books, Book Harbinger, Books Love Me

(This is a very popular book, so I’m sure I missed many. Let me know if yours is one of them and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I just read this a few weeks ago and yesterday wrote up my review. EXACTLY. This was such a beautiful, complex book, I didn't want to leave. I just wanted to languish in Taylor's world. It was precious and heartwarming and I loved it with all my heart.

  2. I'd love to read this complex book. Thanks for a great review.

  3. This is a book that I have been seeing all over the place, and from what I've been reading, I am very intrigued by what's being said about it. I so need to get out and get this one for myself. After having heard you, Sandy and Jill weigh in, there is no way I would miss out!

  4. Yaaaay I'm so glad you loved it like I did! It's such a great book and your review made me want to go get it off my shelf and read it again.

  5. I keep hearing the beginning is confusing but it all sorts out in the end. I feel I need to read this one.

  6. I love the segment by Griggs you quoted! Yes - all the tears! And such a good point about seeming dystopian at first! Great review (and like Amy, so happy you loved it!) :--)

  7. Wow. I've had this on my shelves for quite a while now, and until I just read your review, I hadn't realized that I had no earthly clue what it was about. Hmmm, yeah, I'm thinking now I might actually get around to reading it. In fact, after reading your review, I've got a very strong feeling that this is one of those books that will capture my heart.

  8. I've always been interested in this book but now even more so. After reading your review, now I have a better understanding of what it's about. Great review.

  9. Yayyy, you've read Marchetta!!! This makes me so happy. Jellicoe Road was definitely my favourite from her of the ones I've read so far (the others I've read are: Saving Francesca and Looking For Alibrandi -- both are fantastic.)

    I loved Taylor's character arc in this story. It was so beautiful watching her go from a withdrawn and hard young woman to someone who learns to let people in. And I LOVED LOVED LOVED how the story of the past ties in with the present.

    This is apparently being made into a movie, though I have no idea how far into production they are or anything. But Marchetta is writing the script, I believe, which makes me all kind of happy. Looking For Alibrandi was adapted into a movie in which Marchetta wrote the script for and it was fantastic.

  10. This sounds terrific and is definitely going on my TBR list. Though honestly, I wish I'd waited to read your review and had gone into this knowing nothing. :-) It seems kind of like Never Let Me Go -- the less you know going into it, the better. Gorgeous review, as always!

  11. I read about this author on another blog. Her writing seems interesting.

  12. This is the best review I've read of this book, in that it gets at what is pleasurable about reading it without giving away any of its pleasures. I looked back at my review and wished I'd written one more like this.

  13. I read this very recently and believed everyone else had read it before me, but apparently I was wrong :-) It's a great little book with a lot going on on so many levels and I'm glad you enjoyed it.
    But I'm afraid I don't agree on the dystopian feeling: to me it was clear from the start that this "war" was a children thing, in the way of "la guerre des boutons", one of those things that are all-important when you are young but not really existing if you look at them with adult eyes. And to me *spoiler* the fact that she is the one discovering and explaining to the others how the war is nothing but a game is part of her coming of age.

  14. Sandy: Looking forward to your review!

    Harvee Lau: You're welcome - I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up :)

    Zibilee: We can't all be wrong, right? :P I hope you enjoy it as much as the rest of us did.

    Amy: Thank you again for nudging me to read it!

    Kathy: Yes, eventually it all falls into place in a really rewarding way.

    Jill: And like I told Amy, thank you again! I love how well Marchetta accomplished a pervasive feeling of unease while being vague about what was actually going on.

    Debi: Yes, I think it might be :)

    Vasilly: Thank you! I've been meaning to pick it up for years and I'm so glad I did at last.

    Michelle: I need to read more of her books soon! Thank you for the recommendations. I had no idea about the movie! That's exciting about Marchetta being involved. I'm sure she'll do a great job with the script.

    Stephanie Ward: I tried not to give too many specific details away, but this is one of those books that are very difficult to write about without any spoilers! Hopefully you'll forget most of what I said before you pick it up yourself.

    Mystica: Yes, I was very impressed!

    Jeanne: Aw, thank you so much!

    Scribacchina: You're a far more perceptive reader than I am - the beginning had me completely fooled. (Then again, no one should ever trust me when I say something is surprising or unexpected, because I'm constantly caught unaware by things other readers can see coming from miles away. It happened with Fingersmith and pretty much every mystery I have ever read :P)

  15. I started this one and then gave up. Looks like I need to stick with it. Shoot. I'll have to give it another try.

  16. Beth F: Yes, do give it another try one day! It's the kind of book that demands a lot of you at first, but the pay off is huge.

  17. OMG YES! I love this review. I'm still suffering from a book hangover having read this one earlier this month, and I have yet to force my thoughts and feelings about it into word form in a review. I love your take, I actually hadn't thought about the hostility of the earlier parts of the novel being largely a result of Taylor's interpretation/personality. I could probably work myself up into tears just thinking about this one, but certainly the tears of love and just too much emotion, not of sadness.

  18. I went into this book not expecting to enjoy it, but I surprised myself. I really should try more by her. I have some, I think.

  19. I'm so glad you finally read this! I knew you'd love it. :-) I'm looking forward to reading more books by Marchetta.


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