Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genre: Contemporary YA, Magic Realism
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date: First published 2006
Paperback: 419 pages
I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree. I tell him stories. About the Jellicoe School and the Townies and the Cadets from a school in Sydney. I tell him about the war between us for territory. And I tell him about Hannah, who lives in the unfinished house by the river. Hannah, who is too young to be hiding away from the world. Hannah, who found me on the Jellicoe Road six years ago.
Taylor is leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School. She has to keep the upper hand in the territory wars and deal with Jonah Griggs – the enigmatic leader of the cadets, and someone she thought she would never see again.
And now Hannah, the person Taylor had come to rely on, has disappeared. Taylor’s only clue is a manuscript about five kids who lived in Jellicoe eighteen years ago. She needs to find out more, but this means confronting her own story, making sense of her strange, recurring dream, and finding her mother – who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road.
The moving, joyous and brilliantly compelling new novel from the best-selling, multi-award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
REVIEW & DISCUSSION
Ana’s Take: This book. THIS BOOK.
Confession: I’ve been really hesitant about reading (On The) Jellicoe Road to the point where I actually bought a hard copy a few years ago then donated it without having read it. That hesitation probably stemmed from the fact that every single person I know who has read this book has not only recommended it wholeheartedly but also said something to the effect of this being one of their favourite books (YA or otherwise) EVER. So…no pressure, right? Now that I have read, I can totally understand those professed sentiments. Not only that but I can also add my own: this book. THIS BOOK. Everything about it blew my mind away: the narrative, the structure of the novel, the themes, and the characters – old and new – that absolutely stole my breath away. It’s a beautiful, brilliant novel, deserving of all the praises it has received.
Thea’s Take: I… have mixed feels when it comes to Jellicoe Road. I have been meaning to read Melina Marchetta for a very long time now, but moreso for Finnikin of the Rock than this novel. I, too, have heard rave reviews for Jellicoe Road, but every time I’d ask someone what the book is actually about, I would receive evasive answers that never sounded particularly enticing. As such, I went into this book with no real knowledge of the story, except that: 1. basically everyone in the YA-reading universe loves this novel, and 2. I have to “stick with it” because Something Happens that makes any initial confusion worth it.
To which I say… ok. I stuck with the book, even though the first half had me scratching my head, and I actually ended up appreciating it very much. Jellicoe Road is a “now and then” type of story, a melodrama, and a emotional contemporary young adult read that is all about the journey. It features beautiful prose and heartbreaking characters, whom I could not help but love.
At the same time, I must be very honest and say that Jellicoe Road is not my literary soulmate. I can appreciate it, I deeply admire Marchetta’s writing, and I don’t regret reading it for a second, but… it’s not a book I would want to read again.
Like I said, mixed feels.
1.Let’s start with what has a lot of the reviewers/readers talking about the most: the first half of the novel. It seems those first chapters are make-or-break as they offer a distinctive narrative style that drops the reader in the middle of an ongoing story in a manner that could be described as “disorienting”. What are your thoughts on this aspect of the novel?
Ana: One thing that has been stressed by those that have read and loved the novel is the need for new readers to go into it unspoiled and I followed that instruction to the letter. I am happy I did because I was able to experience the story the way its narrator Taylor does: navigating her journey and her discoveries as they happen, with no one to hold your hand. As such, I did not find the beginning especially difficult or confusing as from the start I felt the split narrative and the different strands beautifully portrayed the character’s special moment.
I call it “special moment” because those first chapters are all about Taylor being on the brink of change. And it’s such a rich moment and my absolutely favourite thing about it is the way the narrative embraces all of these seemingly disparate things that are happening to Taylor: dreams and visions of a boy, Hannah going missing, her reading of Hannah’s notebooks, her being chosen to be a leader and facing that responsibility, her place in the war, her falling in love, and her finding out the truth about her past are all there, happening at the same time just like life usually is. More than that though, what truly spoke to me is the way the story starts out as one thing, with a strong emphasis on the war and Taylor’s leadership role, and then morphs into something else altogether as a story about friendship and love and how tragedy shapes and bends those. There is a lot of growth for Taylor in the meantime and that is perfectly encapsulated by her own narration and the way that she describes characters to start it then slowly changes her mind about them. In many ways, Taylor’s narrative is completely unreliable: because the question of memory (more on that later) but also because her descriptions and thoughts are so inevitably marred by her prejudices and worries.
Thea: I found that the first half of the novel (which actually turns out to be 200 pages in the US edition of the book) *is* largely disorienting and distracting. The minutia of the “territory war” between the different factions along Jellicoe Road is moderately interesting, and I very much appreciate that Marchetta trusts her readers to be patient, and to figure things out for themselves. I also appreciate Marchetta’s prose and her beautiful characterization of the unreliable first person narrator, Taylor.
That said, I found myself thinking the entire time I was reading the first half of the book: “so what?”
Had I not known that there would be a Big Reveal and Things Would Come Together by mid-novel, I’m not sure I would have stuck with the book. That said, once that AHA! moment happens and you learn about the intertwined past and present storylines, things do pick up. And these plot threads become intertwined in a way that is both beautifully written and heart-wrenching. The story is not really about a war, or about any of the minutia that the novel focuses so heavily upon in its early pages: as Ana says, it’s a novel about responsibility, and romantic love, and parental love, and mistakes, and pain, and forgiveness. I appreciate that very, very much (melodramatics aside).
BUT… to answer the question above, I’m not convinced that the first half of the book is worth the ultimate payoff. Especially considering how the entire locus of the first part of the book falls away into so much insignificance as the novel wears on and it turns out that the “war” is actually farcical and utterly superfluous. And while I appreciate the larger symbolic meaning and history of this war (which is actually not a war) in theory, I am not convinced of this narrative efficacy in practice.
2.Speaking of story – the book is both about Taylor and her friends in the “now” and about another group of friends in the past. What are your thoughts concerning these two storylines and the way in which they eventually converge?
Ana: SO well done. And oh, wasn’t that convergence heart-breaking? In the way that those stories were mirrored, in the way that the young characters were so hopeful about their future like their predecessors were inasmuch as they still suffered the consequences of their tragic past?
Because this is a book about tragedy and how trauma can shape lives but it’s also about hope and bonding. One of the more interesting things about the two storylines for me is the intensity with which the relationships are formed between friends and lovers. I loved the juxtaposition of those relationships in the past and those in the present especially how the former were forged with almost no sense of self-awareness of that intensity (as a result of trauma, I’d say?) whereas the latter has Taylor not only very aware of her strong feelings for her friends and love interest but also how that could be potentially negative.
Thea: What Ana said. When the storylines eventually converge, it’s done in such a beautiful way and I agree with everything that Ana says above.
The only thing I would have to add/underscore is my love for Jellicoe Road‘s focus on friendship in both the present and the past. Romantic love is a strong thematic core for the novel (which is done well, but with loads of blatant melodrama – more on that in the next question), but the relationships that truly captured my attention were the ones between friends. Particularly, the bonds formed in the present between Taylor and Raffy – how Raffy is always there to have Taylor’s back, how Taylor reciprocates (or fails to reciprocate) this love for her best friend by novel’s end. The bond between the “idiot” Ben and Taylor, or the awkward but powerful friendship between Griggs and Santangelo. And, in the past/present, the relationship between Narnie and Tate is so incredibly poignant as they take turns comforting and caring for each other, each giving the other something to hold on to in their toughest and most painful hours.
3. Let’s talk themes. Jellicoe Road has a rich, affecting, and varied thematic core, including threads of memory, friendship, lost innocence, young love, dysfunctional families, abuse, tragedy, trauma, hope and more. Were these themes well-integrated with the narrative? Which aspect of Jellicoe Road (thematic or otherwise) affected you the most?
Ana: I read this question and literally placed my hand over my heart to brace myself. Because…wow, there is so much tragedy in the book. Not only in the past but in the present storyline too. To be frank, for a moment I feared the book was going down a road of manipulation and string-pulling but for me it never veered down that path, thankfully. I think because the writing is so judiciously crafted to merge the two storylines that those several tragedies became really just one (or two).
The stand-out aspect of Jellicoe Road is the question of memory. Starting with the fact that Taylor’s memory is somewhat faulty and just why her memory is faulty has a lot to do with trauma and surviving. But that theme is present everywhere in the story: how Jonah’s memory of his father is dependent of his mother’s memory of her husband and how those narratives conflict and contrast; Taylor’s own memory of her childhood that slowly comes forward with the truths she forgot; the carvings on the tree that serve as placeholder for memories long gone; the war itself is about memory and tradition; and then we have the telling of stories and writing down of stories so that they won’t be forgotten. It’s a beautiful theme that is articulated and conveyed in the novel in a myriad of perfect ways.
The other two aspects of the novel that affected me the most were 1)Hannah and Webb’s relationship and especially the description of their accident. And 2) Taylor and Raffy’s friendship. THOSE GIRLS. MY HEART.
Thea: Oh, Jellicoe Road. There are plenty of themes at the heart of this novel, my favorites dealing with the power of memory, hope, friendship, and love in all of its glorious and terrible forms.
On a related note, though, I can’t write this review without discussing the melodrama meter – believe me when I say that Jellicoe Road is blatantly melodramatic. Taken as a whole, I think Marchetta walks the border between poignant heart-rending drama and soap operatic melodrama… but Jellicoe Road crosses that line into bad melodrama on a few occasions. For exmaple: the late-novel fire had no purpose in the book other than to cause a period of dramatic tension and to bring certain characters closer together (after making them fear it would all be over); the romantic relationships between two adult characters (whose names I won’t say because of spoilers); the Secret Parentage of two characters and a revelation late in the book that one character better not act like another character’s mother BECAUSE.
The thing is, if you break down the past-present storyline and state the facts as they unfold in the book on a very superficial level, it all sounds rather over the top. The power of Jellicoe Road, however, lies with Marchetta’s gorgeous writing and the undercurrents of subtext that transform events that could be interpreted as melodramatic ridiculousness into powerful, poignant moments of grace and heartache.
If that’s not the mark of a truly gifted author, I don’t know what is.
4.Have you read any other Melina Marchetta book? Will you read more of her work in the future?
Ana: This is my first Marchetta book and I loved it really, really hard. BUT from what I hear, her books are always this heart-wrenching and I don’t think I can cope with reading books like this too often. This one reduced me to sobbing myself to sleep in fetal position.
Thea: This is also my first Marchetta book, which I greatly appreciated but ultimately didn’t fully click with (not by any fault of the book, but because of my own personal taste). This, of course, makes me all the more excited to read Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock – a fantasy novel that I think will be more my speed. I cannot wait to give it a go.
5.Finally, two more questions for YOU, dear readers. Our rating is below but we are curious: how would YOU rate this book on a scale from 1 to 10? And would you consider this a favourite book?
Ana: Torn between 8 and 9. Will go with 9
Thea: 8 – Excellent. Even if I personally have mixed feelings towards the book and its efficacy, I cannot give the novel a lower grade. It’s really, really good (even though I don’t think I’d read it again, nor would I ever have picked it up on my own).
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!