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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta Because I likes my angst....

When it's done well, anyway. And Jellicoe Road is a lovely bit of misery.

Seventeen-year-old Taylor Markham is a student at a boarding school. This particular school takes in students who have had some sort of brush with the law or, in Taylor's case, whose parents can't or won't care for them. When Taylor was eleven, her mom drove down Jellicoe Road, stopped at a 7-Eleven to let Taylor out to pee, and then drove away, leaving her there. Fortunately, almost-too, fortunately, Hannah, a young woman from the nearby boarding school happens by and saves her.

Several years later, Taylor is the newly designated student leader of the school, and already facing a possible coup by one of her rivals, Richard. Meanwhile, Cadets from a military school have arrived for their yearly adventure in the bush. This signals the beginning of the yearly territory war between Taylor's school, the Cadets and the Townies.

Taylor is a prickly, angry sort of protagonist, haunted by her abandonment and strange dreams of a boy in a tree. A few years before, she ran away, seeking her mother and along the way ran into a Cadet who would be her companion for part of her ultimately, unsuccessful journey. The Cadet, Jonah Griggs, who this year is the leader of the Cadets.

Taylor's life isn't perfect, but the world she inhabits has a definite appeal, a kind of small-town coming-of-age where kids still ride bicycles and engage in "wars" over club houses and trees whose trunks carry the carved history of generations of children before them. It's the kind of adolescence/young adulthood where your friends are the center of your universe and it seems that you will be together forever. Friendship being a central theme, the story follows two narratives, Taylor's and a second (novel within a novel) detailing the adventures of five youths, eighteen years before.

The adults in Jellicoe Road have a case of Harry Potter-itis, in that they insist of withholding crucial information from the young adults in their charge, which ultimately results in said young adults taking matters into their own hands. (And the adults acting butt-hurt about the matter.) I guess the rationale is that they are protecting the youths, but really, all they are doing is making matters worse. Case in point, Taylor runs away twice to search for her mom.

Of course, Jellicoe Road isn't perfect. There's the fact that even though everyone treats Taylor as a leader, she never does any actual leading, instead, spending most of the book in an angry snitt and relying on others to take care of her duties. Given her past, you can see why she behaves as she does, but that doesn't explain why she's put in any position of leadership.

But the story is populated with profound moments, and those instances help propel the narrative beyond its rather confusing beginning and Taylor's borderline Mary Sue characterization. For example, there is Taylor's second search for her mother in the big city of Sydney, where Taylor learns that parents can actually do worse things than abandon you at a 7-Eleven. Then there's the second story of the five friends which contains some of the most emotionally evocative and poignant moments in the novel. Exhibit A, the novel's beginning:

"My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.

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.'"

I read that bit to my husband one evening, when I was almost finish reading the novel and really understood the context, and my stone-cold bitch self got all choked up.

This story, it gets hurty, but it's a good hurt.