Author: Melina Marchetta
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Drama
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Many pop literature junkies are getting more vocal about giving up on the stories churned out by most of today’s YA authors. And no wonder—if you've noticed how ‘bestseller ideas’ are being downcycled again and again to populate the genre's shelves, you may even agree with them when they huff, "Oh well, can’t blame the writers; kitsch sells.”
Fortunately, novels like Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road emerge to reassure us that the Young Adult section isn’t in any way heading for an aesthetic holocaust. It’s the kind of book that stands stark against its slew of peers; it’s the kind of book that says, “Just dig in, there’s still a multitude of us here.”
Jellicoe Road follows the story of Taylor Markham, who was abandoned by her mother on the Jellicoe Road when she was eleven. She hasn’t moved on about it six years later, but she tries to swim with life as it surges forward. She takes over their school’s Underground Community in their annual territory wars against the Townies and Cadets. But Lady Luck has a way of tethering Taylor to the past. Taylor finds out that Jonah Griggs, the boy who betrayed her when she ran away to find her mother three years ago, is the current Cadet leader. Problems and internal issues heap up when her guardian Hannah goes missing, leaving only a story about five kids that Taylor feels a strange connection to. Taylor acknowledges then that only when she is able to properly arrange her past’s puzzle pieces would she only find the key to her present and future.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s any summary that can do justice to Jellicoe Road’s real magic. If anything, the book itself refuses to be boxed by its own blurbs and nondescript excerpts. Marchetta’s storytelling talent is evident in the fact that even if the book is built on the same foundations of a hackneyed YA novel, it manages to morph into something so tastefully refreshing and intricately beautiful. It veers off the kitsch high way, if you get my drift.
Marchetta’s prose flaunts an even blend of insightful and crude. It gets deep and lyrical during Taylor’s introspections; it gets laugh-out-loud funny in the punchy, profanity-peppered dialogues between the main characters. In both sides, Marchetta showcases a kind of writing style that I can only describe as a breath of fresh air from the heaps of YA lit that I’ve previously devoured. Add to that a certain edge that gives off a vibe of magical realism, and I can totally say the book is nothing short of unforgettable.
Onto one of its distinguishing points: Jellicoe Road contains a story within a story. As I’ve heard, the first hundred pages made most readers mistake the book for mind-screw galore, discouraging them to leaf through the next three hundred pages. It’s understandable because the two parts read like very different entities. But as the plot charges along, Marchetta drops clues that glue both stories, filling in the gaps little by little until the two meshed together to form an intricate masterwork. The mystery is not so hard to crack, though. The wham! lines would elicit an “About time you figure it out, Taylor!” instead of an “I didn’t see that coming!” from the thinking audience. Be that as it may, the emphasis given on the anticipation factor was excellent.
Taylor as a character doesn’t stray so much from her antiheroine peers: she’s angst-on-two legs, carries an emotional baggage heavier than herself, snarky, unapologetically selfish, and has lots of trust issues. But akin to all the characters I’ve loved in literature, it isn’t about how unlikable Taylor seems to be—it’s all about how she emerges as a well fleshed-out person from the pages. Her humanness shines the brightest when she tries to be tough but grudgingly acknowledges that she needs other people to hold on to.
Standing alongside her is a ragtag bunch of other memorable characters: Aboriginal Townie leader Chaz Santangelo, the amiable ex-Townie Raffaela, the self-deprecatory muso Ben, and the damaged and stoic Cadet Jonah Griggs. This group as well as the other in the accompanying story are caught up in complicated relationship polygons—enemies, friends, friends-but-not-quite, lovers-that-aren’t—that somehow contributed to their dimensionalities.
Reading about their petty territory disputes was somewhat fascinating, though it made me extra-afraid of the actual territory wars our country is engaged in with Sabah and China. In the book, violence is the punishment for whoever trespasses into enemy terrain. That’s just black eyes and broken bones, but it’s violence just the same. Imagine this system blown up as the people involved fight over international lands. Death tolls, negotiations, pleas? Our newspapers carried headlines about those for weeks.
Anyway (sorry for digressing), since we’re already talking about boundaries and places, I commend Marchetta for her first-class world-building. The weight of the realm she created is as palpable as the lives of the people who inhabit it.
As a whole, I can say that Jellicoe Road is one of those books that deserve an improper fraction—I’d totally give it 6 out of 5 stars if I could! Hands down, this is definitely one of the best books I’ve read.