"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · wondermous · young adult lit

“belonging and longing to be” on the Jellicoe Road

Most would encourage note-taking while reading, or at least your becoming a regular reading-response-diarist. There are arguments against the former. I try to write down words I don’t know with a page number beside them. I occasionally put in scraps of paper to take me back to a page to try to remember why I put the paper there. I rely strongly on memory (which will inevitably fail me). I converse during, and I take notes after (though rarely directly after). All this to say: I should have employed scraps of paper and scribbled a bit all the while. By book’s end everything fell so nicely into place I had a hard time finding the seams and the page numbers for cites and quotes…nevertheless here are my belated notes on Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road.

2999475Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

HarperTeen (HarperCollins), 2006.

(hardcover) 419 pages.

“What do you want from me?” he asks. What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him. More.

Abandoned by her mother on Jellicoe Road when she was eleven, Taylor Markham, now seventeen, is finally being confronted with her past. But as the reluctant leader of her boarding school dorm, there isn’t a lot of time for introspection. And while Hannah, the closest adult Taylor has to family, has disappeared, Jonah Griggs is back in town, moody stares and all.

In this absorbing story by Melina Marchetta, nothing is as it seems and every clue leads to more questions as Taylor tries to work out the connection between her mother dumping her, Hannah finding her then and her sudden departure now, a mysterious stranger who once whispered something in her ear, a boy in her dreams, five kids who lived on Jellicoe Road eighteen years ago, and the maddening and magnetic Jonah Griggs, who knows her better than she thinks he does. If Taylor can put together the pieces of her past, she might just be able to change her future.

Reading the dust cover, I wouldn’t have picked up Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road. It is not that the Publisher’s Comments are poorly written or lacking intrigue. I just tend to avoid books this dramatic and ‘real;’ especially starring a teen-aged protagonist. I picked up Jellicoe Road because everyone (the blogosphere) told me I should. It was the collective’s unanimity that drew me to this one.

If I were to open the first page, and not the dust cover, in a library aisle I would have taken it home, review unread.  Here is the first line: “My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.”

The first two paragraphs following:

I counted.

It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-la. We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away, because I wanted to see the ocean and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey. I remember asking, “What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?” and my father said, “Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand,” and that was the last thing he ever said.

Okay, I will continue, and this will be the rest of the “Prologue”

We heard her almost straightaway. In the other car, wedged into ours so deep that you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. She told us her name was Tate and then she squeezed through the glass and the steel and climbed over her own dead—just to be with Webb and me; to give us her hand so we could clutch it with all our might. And then a kid called Fitz came riding by on a stolen bike and saved our lives.

Someone asked us later, “Didn’t you wonder why no one came across you sooner?”

Did I wonder?

When you see your parents zipped up in black body bags on the Jellicoe road like their some kind of garbage, don’t you know?

Wonder dies.


The author is gifted with ending a chapter in such a way that had me saying “What? More! You can’t leave it there…” It was lovely. But you can see how this could be frustrating at times.

There is also the adjustment to the idea that the italicized portions in the first person, is not the narrator of the non-italicized portions. And while the non-italicized present day Taylor Markham is linear, the italicized manuscript of Hannah’s is not. Taylor could hardly work out the sequence; “My memory is like Hannah’s manuscript—distorted and out of sequence” (281). Though the manuscript Hannah as written is not linear it is used to parallel events in Taylor’s life. Hannah has written a story about five teenagers of the Jellicoe Road that is set 18 years previous.  Taylor’s story forms a loosely resembled cast of five as well with Ben and Jessa as interchangeable. You see in the present a reflection of the past. In the paralleling, you see the potential for history to repeat itself—which would be terrible.

I [Taylor] find some chapters to read that seem intact. I’m running out of them because so many are half-finished or written in a scrawl that I can’t quite understand. There’s this part of me that doesn’t want to deal with the fact that one of these characters is lost to them and I’m frightened that I will come across the chapter where they find him, because I know, deep down, that it’s not going to turn out the way I want. That someone in this story is not going to get out of it alive. (122-3)

I could as easily had put my name in the brackets…


Marchetta would defy ‘inevitability.’ There is a feeling of inevitability as the story in the manuscript unfolds. The inevitable is not because as a reader you should assume the worst. The characters hold every promise and the reader is drawn into the romance of their lives. The inevitability is drawn from what you come to conclude about their future.  You are given allusions as to what will or has happened (depending on the time line). With Taylor, there is not that same sense. She signifies possibility. She, as a character, centers everything and courageously (determinedly) pulls everything together into the present, and forward into a future. And yet, with Taylor, and her friends, you could plausibly argue for the more tragic circumstances of the earlier quintet. They should have the outcome; the repeated history. Taylor and Jonah Griggs are especially ripe for the inevitable destruction of their future, hell, even their present. Hope resides in Marchetta’s defiance of expectation.

There is a long sentence to be created with the listing of all the ugliness glimpsed in the world of this novel. I’m not going to write it. Human depravity and victimization is fairly limitless and Marchetta references a good many of them. For Taylor, and others, there are close calls. Once you read it, you will see. There is a particular moment on (255), and another spectacular moment on page (415), another breathless realization here (335-40). Everything is pulling for Taylor to not just survive, but live a full and beautiful life.

Do not let any trepidation over the first part of the book cause you to set this book aside.  I am a resistant reader of aforementioned dramatics, but I am lover of well-crafted stories. The parallel timelines of manuscript and present were a brilliant idea, and well-conceived. I tend to look at voice. And I appreciate the fact that the manuscript has its own, while Taylor inhabits another. This is not to say that any dissimilarity interrupts the flow and pacing of the book. The transitions are handled beautifully. As the novel nears end you can see Taylor drawing from the manuscripts language and the sense of cohabitation strengthens. I am also patient with the unfolding of a mystery if the author gives me enough as I go along. If you are greedy, you will not care for this story and will set the book down; which is just too bad. I will be friendly and give a hint: The author is giving you everything all along. Nothing and no one is left to spare in Jellicoe Road. And by page end, (and after a good cry), I marveled over how phenomenally well-plotted the clue unraveling occurred—Marchetta even fooled me with the Mrs. Dubose promise. This is Taylor’s story and it can’t come too easy…it never has.

Jellicoe Road follows Taylor Markham, a girl with a sense of no history or past. Yet as the story unfolds, it is her story, the history that formed her, the one she longs for and fearfully confronts. The story of her past is discovered in a manuscript of a story of five teenagers, in dreams, in the memories of those about her, and in the memories of past encounters uncomfortably revisited and continually haunting. Who she is is informed by her past; and yet you see who she is. Taylor is a developed character. As the novel progresses you see Taylor becoming—more. You come to see why she is; but those things do not limit who she becomes. It is fantastic. And it goes back to human possibility, not inevitability. Taylor will carve out a place for herself; especially if the world will allow it; Jellicoe Road would.

That Marchetta writes believable characters is important. That her compassionate gaze and handling of Taylor and others allows for flaws is a big part of that success.  You have to come to love the characters for the story to work. Your heart has to break at least three times in the course of the story.


There are literary, pop cultural allusions to follow. And there is context to read because some Australian terms for things are foreign; different but not difficult. There are humorous antics enough to keep you afloat—Kenny Rogers, anyone? There is enough charm to have you sighing without gagging.

I was concerned about the Jonah Griggs component, but he does not come off cliché by book end. He has a vulnerability that saves him. (319-20, 342-3, 346). With the paralleling of stories (past and present) there is a desire to connect characters: J is like—J, or N is similar to T. In doing this I was probably adding more to the character T, than if I had only the one story to follow. An intentional characterization device? Projecting is part of the uncovering of the mysterious past, overlaying and connecting Taylor to one or another. She becomes a more complicated character by book’s end. I hesitate to say more complete, but certainly fuller. Many of the characters do. I suppose a good story should do that, but it works well into a theme of Jellicoe Road..about becoming; about “belonging–longing to be.” (cite).

So much is said about identity in Jellicoe Road. The present teenagers find identifiers in the past teenagers (in the manuscript). The past group appear to be shaped identity-wise along the added parallels of where they are from whether Townies, Cadets, or of Jellicoe School. Where one is from informs Identity. The Jellicoe Road would be a sought after Identity (esp. for Jude) only as it transcends its location as a boarding school for the assorted arsonists and orphans; seasonal campsite; war zone. Jellicoe Road is place and person.  Of Whom one is from is an overriding factor in the conversation on Identity. Again the defiance against expectation and inevitable conclusions. Jonah looks like his father (303), but is not his father; however events concerning his father have affected him.  Taylor comes by her looks (263) and intensity (401) honestly; but she has choices of her own. There is a desire for a connection to the past, of where and whom one comes from, but it is not so as to predict ones future, nor is it to solidify an identity—where would the hope in that be? There are reasons for know where we come from.

I watch Raffy as she removes the pickles from her hamburger and hands them over to Santangelo without them exchanging a word and I realize again there is more to that relationship than spelling bees and being enemies. These people have history and I crave history. I crave someone knowing me so well that they can tell what I’m thinking. (229)

Taylor needs to know she has a place to come back to before she can move on, physically (graduating school) and emotionally (abandoned by mother). Jellicoe Road is a physical place, a subconscious, and an emotional one. Her mother should have been a source of both.  Jellicoe Road has been slipping away from her for a while now; land war losses, inner-House conflicts (disconnects), and trouble with Hannah. Now she is in her last year—needless to say, it all comes to a head; Hannah’s disappearance a significant blow and an important impetus. Creating a parental connection (a sense of history and belonging) to Jellicoe Road creates a landmark and a place of memory. A positive legacy is created out of the ashes of tragic events. The survivors will not languish, but find redemption and purpose. Their legacy is left in a place; a place that is a signifier for those found there. The past, present, and future exists in the relationships between those who will always return to you.

As for the epilogue. How can one page hold so much dread and promise? One page holds a sense that though some things cannot be forgotten those things should not overshadow that which should not be forgotten. The past created more than a legacy of tragedy. Taylor was still to be born, and the house on Jellicoe Road was still to be built. The Jellicoe Road is so much more than it should ever have been.


Links and…

Adele (of Persnickety Snark) says this at Steph Su Reads, “Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta) – complex structure meets exquisite characterisation in a deep and connective storyline. Also, there’s a really hot guy in fatigues that you will come to love dearly.” Persickety Snark’s post on Jellicoe Road is here.

Little Willow (of Bildungsroman) hosts Melina Marchetta’s thoughts on Hope here.

I don’t care if you are a boy or a girl, nor whether you are teen-aged or not: You can pick this book up in the Teen section of the Library. OR you can just buy it (and a copy for me please). Read Jellicoe Road.

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