I originally listened to this book on audio in 2009, after reading this glowing review by Kyra Smith of Ferretbrain, who, if anything, understates its merits. I’ve read it twice more since then, and am midway into my fourth read-through. The following is an update of one of a couple of draft reviews I wrote for the book after my first reading three years ago.
On the Jellicoe Road (title shortened in the US and UK to Jellicoe Road for reasons as yet incomprehensible) is the story of Taylor Markham, a student at the Jellicoe School (grades 7-12), a couple hundred kilometers from Sydney, Australia. Taylor has just been chosen to head the Jellicoe students in their annual territory wars with residents of the town of Jellicoe and the cadets who visit every year for wilderness training.
Taylor, however, has enough problems already, what with the pain and confusion surrounding several mysterious events in her past, the recent disappearance of her long-time caretaker Hannah, and the appearance in her dreams of a young boy in a tree who keeps trying to tell her something dire. The discovery that the leader of the cadets this year is the very boy who betrayed her three years earlier complicates the situation even further.
Interspersed with Taylor’s narrative is that of five friends who lived in the area twenty years earlier, brought together by a horrible tragedy on the Jellicoe Road. Their lives, their secrets, their triumphs and their downfalls will shape the fates of Taylor and those she cares about in the strangest and most surprising ways.
The story is extremely complicated, but in the end, all the loose plot threads come together in a rich, majestic tapestry with nary a fray or broken seem in sight.
I will admit that towards the end, I was beginning to figure out several of the book’s secrets before they were revealed, and at least once got mightily annoyed at Taylor for not making a particular connection much sooner. Still, it’s all good, and even at the very end, Marchetta still managed to throw some completely unexpected and deeply satisfying twists my way.
This is a book that you read and then reread and then reread again for good measure, first because there’s no way you’ll pick out all the pertinent details on the first run, and second because the story is so utterly captivating.
The characterization in <i>On the Jellicoe Road</i> is marvelous. Taylor is more than a little messed up (unsurprising, given her history), and often treats the people around her less kindly than they deserve. And yet she does care deeply about other people, and one of the great pleasures of the book is in watching her relationships with the other characters (and theirs with each other) mature and evolve as they grow closer together. Plus, she’s just a lot of fun, and even her more anti-social behavior (like that of the titular character on House) is usually entertaining.
The supporting cast is equally wonderful. They’re so good, in fact, that I can’t pick out just one or two favorites among them, and if I tried to summarize them all I’d 1) be here all night, and 2) spoil an awful lot of the book.
Another thing I should mention is that the story is deeply, incredibly, heartbreakingly sad. But, in a good way.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve ranted about the use of pain and tragedy in fiction as a shortcut to quality. And even when the tragic elements are appropriate to the world the author has created, they often feel unnecessary, only there to spur the protagonist to get off her/his/its butt and get to work already, or to pull the observers’ heartstrings, or to fill the authors’ angst quota.
It therefore came as something of a shock for me, upon reading On the Jellicoe Road to (re-)discover that tragedy can work to make a story better, in the right hands. The hands of Melina Marchetta, for example.
The copious amounts of pain and suffering and loss highlight moments of joy and connection and forgiveness, which are also in plentiful supply. This bittersweet mood runs through the entire book, and the epilogue is unbearably poignant.
I should throw in a word of warning here. While the tragic elements do enhance the story, they might be overwhelming to people (especially young people) who have not already been desensitized to tragedy in fiction. Sad books are not for everyone, so I would encourage anyone thinking of picking up this book to consider carefully whether they can handle this level of intensity before proceeding.
Which is not to say it’s all grim and gloomy. Those elements are omnipresent, and grow more prominent as the story progresses, but as already mentioned, there’s also great happiness and wonder. Additionally, the book is often very funny, with Taylor’s first person narration providing many entertaining observation, and plenty of witty banter among the various characters.
There are occasional flubs and missteps, and I find many of the political viewpoints which crop up highly suspect, but all these concerns are exponentially surpassed by the mastery of the plot, the richness of characterization, and the heartbreakingly beautiful emotional core of the story. All these elements and more make On the Jellicoe Road a towering literary achievement. With the sole caveat of emotional intensity, I give this book my highest possible recommendation.