Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
From the prologue:
My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
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.
As with Undone, I don’t want to give too much away about Melina Marchetta‘s Jellicoe Road. If you’re feeling adventurous, I recommend just diving into the book without reading the jacket copy or looking for more information about it. (In other words, don’t expect much plot summary in this review. Shocking, I know! ) I will say that this is not a book for everyone. I can easily see teens picking this up and loving it, and I can also see teens giving up, even if you warn them that it’s tough going for a while. Myself, I loved this book. Right now, it’s my favorite book of the year. It’s a great book to hand to adults—both those familiar and unfamiliar with contemporary YA fiction—and, I have to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if this at least gets a Printz Honor, assuming it’s eligible for the award. (Although, after this past year’s winner and honor books, what do I know about how these committees think?)
Jellicoe Road is a book that demands a second reading. Partly because the characters and story were so indelibly created that I wanted to continue reading about them, but also because of how the story is structured. Beyond the prologue, which is only two pages long, we’re given no background info about anything. Not about the characters, not about the setting, not about the events that will take place. We read about the various characters and the school and events that play a role in the story, but are in the dark as to their importance, history, and relationships.
The first half of the book is difficult to comprehend because of this. We’re thrown into the middle of, well, something, with no explanation of what’s going on. The various characters aren’t so much introduced as they are captured in the midst of the action, and what background information is given early on about everyone and everything is not contextualized. Things happen, a lot of things, but Marchetta doesn’t place special emphasis on what is essential for readers to pick up on or explain the connections between the various elements. Instead, she gracefully and subtly fills in the blanks as the story goes on, and it’s left to the reader to put everything together. Little by little, as Taylor (the narrator) begins to learn more about the past and about herself, things start to make sense.
I’m a bit afraid I may have made Jellicoe Road seem a bit scary or intimidating. And it does, to be honest, require some effort on the part of the reader, but I also think that there is enough promise of a story, a reason to keep on reading, underlying everything that readers will become aware of, even if they pick the book up on their own with no assurance that it will start to make sense.
I’ve been thinking of the story as a jigsaw puzzle. At first, it’s confusing and perhaps more than a bit overwhelming. Gradually, we start putting the pieces together, in segments that start off small and may not be connected to each other, until we reach the point that we can join everything together, with only a few final pieces left to be put in place. And this, more than anything, is why I feel that it demands rereading. Because as much as I came to love the book the first time around, reading it again, with awareness and foreknowledge of who is who and what happened and why it’s so important, made the story so much richer. And it made me appreciate everything about the book even more: the structure, which was intricate yet seemed so effortlessly done; the prose, which was at times heartbreakingly beautiful, but also deceptively simple; the story, which is about friendship and family and love and loss and forgiveness and connections and learning to live and so much more, since I haven’t discussed the story at all here; and the characters, with all their complications and sorrow and hope, whom I continue to think about.
This is, in a sense, a book that sucks you in right away. I mean, remember the prologue? How could I not finish a book that begins this way? But it’s also a book that requires patience and trust, believing that everything confusing will fall into place and that the time and effort spent reading will be worth it. For me, it more than was.