Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On the Jellicoe Road

A lot of stuff happens on the Jellicoe Road.  A lot of it is tragic.  A lot of it is wonderful.  Together it combined to make one great story and the way Melina Marchetta rendered it was brilliant.  The novel really is phenomenal and deserving of the heaps of praise and awards it has received. This is the second Marchetta book I've read. She is now on my auto-buy list of authors.
Synopsis (from Melina Marchetta's website):
Taylor Markham is not a popular choice. She is erratic, has no people skills and never turns up to meetings. Not to mention the incident when she ran off in search of her mother and only got halfway there. But she's lived at Jellicoe School most of her life and as leader of the boarders that's her greatest asset. Especially now the cadets, led by the infamous Jonah Griggs, have arrived. The territory wars between the boarders, townies and cadets are about to recommence.   But Taylor has other things on her mind: a prayer tree, the hermit who whispered in her ear, and a vaguely familiar drawing in the local police station. Taylor wants to understand the mystery of her own past. But Hannah, the woman who found her, has suddenly disappeared, leaving nothing but an unfinished manuscript about five kids whose lives entwined twenty years ago on the Jellicoe Road.
This is one of those books that sucks you in from the first sentence, which happens to be, "My father took one hundred and thirty two minutes to die."  From that point on I barely breathed for the three hours it took me to read the rest.  Just being able to suck a reader into a story does not qualify a book to be a great book though.  There are plenty of books that suck in readers that are just awful.  This one is a good book in every sense of the word:  good story, strong characters and a light handed touch to the themes.

The story is complex and the pieces are given to the reader a bit at a time.  However, the execution of this is so brilliant it is actually a simple book to read.  There is Taylor's story and then there is the story in Hannah's manuscript which is only given a little here or there.  The places where Hannah's written story are inserted flow perfectly with Taylor's story.  Piece by piece they are information and Taylor hugs every bit of story she has read close to her heart and goes over them again and again.  "So I go back to the stories I've read about the five and I try to make sense of their lives because in making sense of theirs, I may understand mine."  The five suffered a lot of tragedy.  Taylor has too.  At one point I did pause and think exactly how many bad things can happen to one group of  ordinary people.  I thought about it for a moment and realized it was exactly this many and a whole lot more are possible.  Despite all the bad things that happen though the book is not at all depressing because it is balanced with a great sense of wonder and hope.  It is life.

The story is told in first  person from Taylor's  point of view.  The synopsis describes Taylor at the beginning pretty well but as the book progresses she takes more risks.  She steps out of her self imposed boundaries and starts to connect with people a little more.  And then she begins to trust them too.  The difficulties in a person deeply emotionally scarred doing this are realistically portrayed.  What I love about the way this is written is that despite the fact that Taylor is telling the story it is not just her story.  It is also the story of Jonah and Chaz and Raffy and Ben and Jessa and the five kids from the past.  This is what I really love about Marchetta's writing.  She manages to convey community so well.  No individual, no matter, how hard she may try, can live her life isolated.  Everything we do as an individual affects a community of some sort and the ripples are far reaching.  The friendships of Taylor, Jonah, Chaz and Raffy are a small picture of this.  There is nothing at all tragic about the lives of Chaz and Raffy.  They are, however, affected by the tragedy of Taylor's and Jonah's.  How the four of them interact in their fights, their play time, their moments of joy, their moments of grief and their understanding paints a vivid picture of what true community with your friends can be.  With the story of the five it is also shown how one generation impacts another, and not just the older generation the younger.  Taylor and her friends have an impact on the adults in this novel too, changing their perceptions on things they were too close to see all the angles of.  I love this.

The story also explores romantic relationships of many different types.  Intense romantic connection, romantic relationship that didn't work but where the people are still crazy about each other, romance that ended in tragedy, former best friends having feelings towards each other, married life with kids, it's all in this book.  The central one being the relationship between Taylor and Jonah.  What I like best about these two is that they are both working hard to not repeat the mistakes of their parents.  Taylor recognizes some of her mother's weaknesses in herself and wants to overcome them.  Jonah is doing the same thing.  Nothing about their relationship is easy.  Jonah is a really great match for Taylor despite their equally screwed up pasts and he is pretty awesome as a person in his own right.  Okay, not pretty awesome.  Really awesome.  I have to say that this book is brim full of really awesome guys.  At least five.  And as much as I love Jonah and Jude, the one that caught my heart the most was actually Chaz.  There is one point where Taylor thinks, "I'm very disturbed to find out that the leader of the Townies has a soul and I'm beginning to develop a bit of a crush on him."  Oh me too.  (The other two I was counting were Webb and Ben.)

Note on Content:  There are many disturbing topics touched on in the story.  Death, abandonment, abuse (in all its forms) and suicide are all included in some way.  There are two sex scenes neither of which are overly detailed.  There is also some strong language used.  None of this is gratuitous though.  All of it fits into the characters and themes of the story.

There is so much in this novel and yet it is so simply written.  I am in awe of the artistry of it.

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