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Thursday, December 1, 2011

'On the Jellicoe Road' by Melina Marchetta

My name is Taylor Markham. I live on the Jellicoe Road.

 There are the Townies who think they own the place, and the Cadets  who come once a year. Then there’s the Jellicoe School – a collection of  abandoned and troubled teenagers who have all congregated at this  bushland boarding academy.

And every year, there’s the territory war.

For as long as anyone can remember the boarders, cadets and townies battle it out for territory around Jellicoe – from the prayer tree to the club house, bike tracks and river walks. Jellicoe is a puzzle, and whoever gathers the most pieces, wins.

This year Taylor Markham has been voted leader of the school. Santangelo is the Townie boss, and Jonah Griggs the Cadet commander. Between the three of them they’ll wage war … but when the battle gets underway, the fight takes a turn none of them saw coming.

Taylor and Jonah have a history. They ran away together when they were fourteen years old. Taylor was running to her mother, the one who abandoned her on the Jellicoe road when she was eleven-years-old. And Jonah was just running.

When the war gets underway Taylor’s house mentor, her beloved Hannah, leaves unexpectedly with no word of when she’ll return. Taylor travels down to Hannah’s half-finished house everyday, searching for clues… like Hannah’s manuscript. The novel-in-progress tells tale of five Jellicoe children; Narnie, Jude, Tate, Webb and Fitz. The plot is out of order and mired in tragedy, but the more Taylor reads the more she’s convinced that there’s truth to the story. And maybe, just maybe, Hannah’s story will fill the gaps in Taylor’s own memory.

First published in 2006, ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is Melina Marchetta’s standing ovation. Winner of the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, ‘Jellicoe’ put Marchetta on the world stage and for many young readers it is the Marchetta book of their generation.

‘On the Jellicoe Road’ was a real departure for Ms Marchetta, and as a result the book seems to have a polarizing love/hate effect on audiences. Both ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ and ‘Saving Francesca’, Marchetta’s first two novels, were told in linear. But ‘Jellicoe’ is not that easy. Narrated by Taylor Markham, readers are subjected to her fragmented mind – we are privy to the holes in her memory where something from her childhood is simply too awful to recount, but little pieces come floating out of the ether. Taylor’s memory is jogged by the sudden disappearance of her beloved Hannah, the woman who found her abandoned on the Jellicoe road all those years ago … with Hannah’s disappearance Taylor is forced to link the tragedies of the past with the events in her life today.

Aided by Hannah’s unfinished manuscript, Taylor delves into the tales of five Jellicoe teenagers; reading about their antics and friendship, the sadness that bought them all together and the tragedy that tore them apart. The tale of the Jellicoe five becomes the parallel story to Taylor’s, told in fragments as Taylor reads various pages of the manuscript and pieces the plotline together…

This, I think, is the biggest hurdle for readers to overcome. The backwards and forwards momentum of the novel and the duel stories, coupled with Taylor’s determined forgetfulness around the events of her childhood … it means that the novel comes to us in drips and drabs, the story leaking out like a dripping tap. But, therein lies the beauty of ‘Jellicoe’. This is a tough novel, to be sure, but it’s also one of Marchetta’s most rewarding and heart wrenching. ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is a novel that stays with you long after you’ve read the last line. Taylor Markham leaves an impression, and if you persevere with the novel (despite lingering doubts) you’ll never regret having met her.

‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is especially beloved for having such a wonderful array of characters. From the Townies to Cadets, but especially the Jellicoe School, this is one novel that offers up a smorgasbord of secondary characters. There’s Townie leader, Santangelo, flanked by his Mullet Brothers (also affectionately called Heckle and Jeckle). His father is the resident Jellicoe cop, and Santangelo has a dubious and complicated past with Raffaela (a townie girl who attends the Jellicoe School). Ben and Raffaela are Taylor’s reluctant confidantes, the only two Jellicoe students who don’t immediately doubt Taylor’s capabilities as the new leader in their territory war.

Then there’s Jonah Griggs. Josie had bad-boy Jacob Coote, while Francesca pined for strong silent type, Will Trombal … but Jonah Griggs is in a league all his own amongst Marchetta’s men. Taylor first met him at a train platform when they were both fourteen years old and running away, now they are each leading their own factions and fraternizing with the enemy is strictly forbidden. There are rumours about Jonah. Rumours about what he did to his father when he couldn’t take one more beating. Rumours about what he does to those who trespass on Cadet territory. But the most persistent rumours concern him and Taylor … Jonah Griggs will break your heart, only to melt it again. I think he remains Marchetta’s most complex male lead (though Froi and Tom Mackee are giving him a run for his money). Jonah is beautiful for his complexities and many shades of grey. He has a violent past that continues to impact him today, but with Taylor he seems to find an inner peace that is born of their intense love. Taylor and Jonah are definitely a stand-out couple, especially for their proof that you can heal after tragedy, but not by yourself.

How does Jonah Griggs get to be a ten? He sits on a train with me when we’re fourteen and he weeps, tearing at his hair, bashing his head with the palm of his hand, self-hatred pouring out of him like blood from a gut wound in a war movie, and for the first time in my whole life I have a purpose. I am the holder of the grief and pain and guilt and passion of Jonah Griggs and as we sit huddled on the floor of the carriage, he allows me to hold him, to say, ‘Shhh, Jonah, it wasn’t your fault.’ While his body still shakes from the convulsions, he takes hold of my hand and links my fingers with his and I feel someone else’s pain for the first time that I can remember.

As I said, ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is not an easy tale. It’s tough and bitter – Taylor’s past will haunt and anger you, Jonah’s confession will have you choking back tears and the unravelling tale of the Jellicoe Five will leave you a little bit heart-sick. But God, this book is beautiful.

Marchetta took a chance and wrote a complex backwards-and-forwards novel, based largely around the memory gaps of one girl’s delicate psyche. She writes about an ages-old territory war, which is intrinsically linked to a town’s history that has seen an abundance of sorrow.

This novel is filled with characters you’ll never forget, and two stories that will imprint on your heart and have you re-reading again and again and again. Not an easy read, but then again the best one’s never are. How to describe my adoration for this particular novel, when I love all of Melina Marchetta’s work so very much? Well, it’s probably best summarized by Taylor Markham herself;

I fall in love with these kids over and over again and my heart aches for their tragedies and marvels at their friendship.


  1. Oh my goodness!! What a phenomenally amazing post! :D Seriously- Beautiful post for a beautiful book! This book is my favorite book of all time, and I highly doubt there will ever be another book that takes its place.

  2. The way the author tied things together I thought was really clever. I think like most everyone I did miss the banter and wished there were more interatction with her friends and Sinclair. But the story kept me intrigued and turning the pages quickly. I just hope the next book will be able to tie things back together so that we can have all the things we love about Betsy, Sinclar and her friends.


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