I’m going to fangirl just a little bit – my apologies. I will try not to break into incoherent squealing as I type. Unhappily, this does not translate well to the written word.
What is the occasion for this fangirling, you ask? Well, I’m revisiting a young adult favourite today – On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
I mentioned this book in one of my very first posts. I’ve just found out that it’s finding its way on to the silver screen – something I’ve always imagined and that I’m incredibly excited about. So bearing all this in mind, I felt it deserved more than the little blurb I gave it in my best of young adult list.
If you’ve ever been an Australian teenaged girl, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Melina Marchetta. If you didn’t have Looking for Alibrandi thrust into your hands by a high school librarian (a good move on her part, by the way), you should know that Marchetta was writing brilliant young adult fiction before the genre was flooded with various Twilight-adjacent things. Not that I have anything against Twilight-adjacent things. Read what you want.
As I just mentioned, Marchetta is most famous for Looking for Alibrandi, which became a critically acclaimed film in 2000 and has been cherished by Australian readers for 20 years. On the Jellicoe Road was published later, in 2005. It’s a difficult book to explain but we’ll see how I go.
The protagonist is 17-year-old Taylor Markham. She has lived at a rural boarding school since her mother abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road. As the school captain, it’s her responsibility to coordinate the Jellicoe boarders in the annual territory wars between the Townies (the high school in Jellicoe proper) and the Cadets (visiting boys from a Sydney private school). In the meantime, she has to deal with the mysterious disappearance of her mentor and a very complicated relationship with the leader of the Cadets, Jonah Griggs. There’s also her uncanny resemblance to a boy who vanished from Jellicoe years ago and seems to be turning up in her dreams.
This book is so multi-layered; it’s almost impossible to do it justice. You’re going to have to trust me when I say it’s beautiful, clever, imaginative, hopeful and completely heart-breaking. However, I will admit it can be a difficult read. Seriously difficult in fact. There are two voices telling the story. One is Taylor. The other is unidentified.
This is how it works: Taylor discovers pages from a manuscript telling the story of a group of teenagers in Jellicoe in the 1980s. Throughout the novel, we read pages of the manuscript interspersed throughout Taylor’s narrative. Basically, you get little pieces of the puzzle as you read. You won’t understand the significance of all the pieces and the way they fit together until later, but if you stick with this book you will be rewarded. Every little scene and every detail has some significance. I’ve read it again and again and I love it more every time – it’s one of those books where you discover little things you’ve missed on the second, third or even fourth read. It absolutely stayed with me after I closed the pages.
So, there are some other reasons why you should read On the Jellicoe Road. In the interest of brevity, I’ve made a list.
1. The setting and the game.
Jellicoe School is set in sprawling Aussie bushland. There’s something pretty special about this setting. It’s got heat and the dust and a million different plants with razor sharp leaves. But it’s undeniably wild and beautiful. For me, it’s also familiar. I don’t read lots of Australian fiction, so it’s nice to be able to visualise the story in detail from my own experience.
All this sets the scene for the territory wars. The arrival of the Cadets each year marks the start of a intricate war game, where each of the three schools fight for control of the best routes though the bush and the best hang-out spots. The war is incredibly serious business. It’s also every kids dream.
2. The characters
Taylor’s not your typical 17-year-old girl. She’s independent, unpredictable and fairly unfriendly. In other words, she’s not the young adult heroine you’re used to. This goes for most of the characters in Jellicoe. They’re not clichés – they’re people you might know.
I think that’s why the story affected me. Marchetta will get you attached and then run over your emotions with a semi-trailer. Consider yourself warned.
3. The love story
If reading young adult love stories makes you want to whack your head against a wall, rest assured – this one’s difference. It’s simple and realistic, sans soppy declarations of undying love and rippling abs. Just people who are willing to carry the ones they love through terrible situations.
Anyway, just in case you missed the last 800 words – I love this book. I would really encourage you to give it a go if you’re up for something challenging and beautiful.
“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.”