23 boxes of tissues on the Jellicoe Road

by Wardog

Wardog tops off her run of utterly amazing books with On the Jellicoe Road.
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.

Are you in tears, yet? On the Jellicoe Road (or Jellicoe Road, as it was published over here, for some inexplicable reason) is an incredible book, a perfectly judged juxtaposition of beauty and pain, like the Jellicoe road itself introduced here in the prologue. I'm probably failing to sell this from the get go book: On the Jellico Road is not an easy book - in fact, sometimes, it's almost unbearable - but it's also superb in every conceivable way, and so full of hope and wonder that if I believed in books could change lives, this would be one of those books. It's a buy and give to everyone you know sort of book.

On the Jellicoe Road is a complex book, with complex characters and you'll spend at least the first hundred pages faintly bewildered because it just throws you straight into the action of the story, but it's incredibly carefully structured and comes together in remarkably coherent and satisfying way. Everything that happens, everything it tells you, is there for a reason. There are two storylines, one set in the past and one in the present; they seem to run in parallel but, as the book unfolds, they turn out to be intimately connected. The Past tells the story of five teenagers who were brought together in tragedy on the Jellicoe Road. In the present, we have Taylor Markham, a teenage girl who was abandoned at 7/11 by her mother on the Jellicoe Road. She becomes the reluctant leader of her school in the annual territory wars between the Jellicoe school students, the Townies and the Cadets, who come in for six weeks from the city, but she's really searching for family she's lost and a sense of belonging in a world she thinks is "just a tad low on the reliable adult quota."

I've deliberately kept my attempt at a plot summary sparse: there is no way I can do such an intricate book justice in a summary and a large part of the pleasure of reading it comes from piecing the past and the present together, and learning how the one informs and influences the other. The sections of the novel set in the present are told in the first person from Taylor's point of view; the past comes to us in fragments from the novel written by Hannah, the woman who has acted somewhat as a surrogate parent for Taylor. I can't say simply what On the Jellicoe Road is about: it's about love, I think, love and pain, and hope, and how to find it. I'm not a sentimental person, and it's not in any way a sentimental book, but I cried all the way through it. I'm kind of welling up a bit writing this review, and remembering. The thing is, because I am not the sort of person who cries at things, I usually get quite angry by books that try to make me. I feel resentful and manipulated: although it is impossible to read On the Jellicoe Road without being moved, the emotion it never fails to evoke feels natural and cathartic.

There isn't much more to say about On the Jellicoe Road without starting to pick it apart in order to look at why it's so wonderful. But it's a sublime butterfly of a book and I have no wish to stick a pin through its heart. I simply can't remember the last time I was so profoundly affected by something in fiction. It's quite a slow-paced read and far from easy but it's undoubtedly worth it. It's such a powerful story, beautifully written, elegantly structured and full of flawed, complex well-drawn characters. And although it's full of grief and pain and despair, the darkness is never absolute: hope and love are always there when you are sure they can't possibly be. And, if you can possibly believe it, it's far from a grueling emotion-fest. It's also extremely funny (Taylor, for example, has a dry, sarcastic narrative voice that suits her difficult, lonely character perfectly) and there's plenty of adolescent bickering and flirting and relating to keep the book grounded. On the Jellicoe Road is quite simply an essential read. It makes me want to have children so I could give them copy when they got to be teenagers. Even though I hate children. It's that good.

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Comments (go to latest)
Isabel at 09:42 on 2009-05-23
Kyra thanks SO much for writing this review. Just finished it (was anal enough to get my cousin in Australia to buy and post me a copy because I don't like UK edition) and would never of heard of it if you hadn't written this. Fucking LOVE this book. It's just amazing.
Wardog at 10:51 on 2009-05-23
Thank you so much - I'm glad somebody else has read it because it's such an amazing book. And I have no idea what they were thinking of with the UK cover (big red poppy of pointlessness??).
Isabel at 19:04 on 2009-05-25
And especially renaming it Jellicoe Road – that really irked me!

I think what I really loved was the way that everything in it was there for a reason and also because the big points or important sentences and moments didn’t stick in my mind because they were obviously This Is Significant (something which after five seasons of Lost is really. Pissing. Me. Off.) but just because they were the most beautiful – opening paragraph and the ‘more’ stuff being the case in point.
Guy at 06:59 on 2009-07-29
Hey Kyra, just wanted to add my thanks to Isabel's because I just finished reading this book and it was amazing. If you hadn't written this review I never would have given this book a second glance because I would have (shamefully) misjudged it on the basis of having seen the film of Alibrandi and sort-of liked it and thought that was all I needed to know about Melina Marchetta. I'm half-tempted to write a review of this book in which I ramble endlessly about the hundred and one things that it makes me think of, but I guess the succinct thing I'd say about it is that it's the kind of book that I remember reading that made me Believe In Literature when I was younger and that's an experience I've missed for a long long time.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2009-09-09
Oh my god.

Oh my god.

(I promised myself I'd restrict this comment to just the one repetition.)

By great good fortune, my library system has this on Playaway (a sort of combination audiobook and player, just add headphones) and I just happened to stumble across it when browsing the online catalogue (I'm pretty sure I didn't go out looking for it).

I listened to it over the summer and was completely blown away. Easily one of the best books I've read in years. Maybe the best.

This story is so incredibly beautiful. Tragedy and I have been on difficult terms for a long time, and once or twice I've considered issuing a restraining order. This summer it feels like I've been saturated with more angsty melodrama than at any time since I gave up Legacy of the Force in disgust. (At some point when I've got my thoughts better collected I'll have to write a post about the peculiar penchant in the entertainment industry to assume more angst = more literate.) Then again, that may've mostly been due to the third and fourth seasons of Battlestar Galactica, a show which must've been pitched like this: “We've got to show the Brits we can produce something even more angsty than their new version of Doctor Who.” (Ooh, look at all the pretty tangents.)

'Course, some of the tragedy was better than that. I listened to both Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's (which, incidentally, also had a major character die in a car crash and accidentally shot by a loved one, respectively) this spring and they were all right, but even they felt somewhat forced and melodramatic.

On the Jellicoe Road singlehandedly restored my faith in tragedy, and reminded me that yes, it can be an intensely beautiful thing. (Anybody else here think tragedy is a lot harder to pull off satisfactorily than happy stories?)

Which is not to say, I hasten to add for the benefit of anyone who hasn't yet read the book, that it's all tragedy. The ending is bittersweet: tragedy and joy blended to perfection and served in a porcelain bowl with luscious fudge topping.

It's hard enough to get my eyes to tear up, but I was crying all through the last three chapters. The epilogue was such a downer note that I just kept on listening and got the prologue and first nine chapters all over again. (Approximately one million things leaped out at me and had me going “Oh, so that's what that part's about. Another sign of excellent writing.)

And though it's sad, the story is also uplifting. I think this is because at the end of the road, despite all of the pain, all of the heartache, all of the betrayals and perceived betrayals, everyone is forgiven, everyone is loved. I'm tearing up again just writing that.

In terms of plotting, the book is effing fantastic. To borrow a line from Kyra's “Incarceron” review: Read it and weep, JK Rowling, this what a backstory should be. (Also what tragedy should be.)

Even the serial killer plot thread managed to tie into the whole in the most perfectly unexpected way. *David Tennant voice* Brilliant.

I attended a Young Adult Fiction panel at a Convention this weekend, and at one point realized they were having recommendations from the audience. I gave this book a special shout-out (and Catherine Fisher, too).

Unfortunately, my youngest sisters are too young to read this—I just know it would break their hearts—and the older one has already expressed her disinclination to let me tell her how much I loved the book, let alone recommend it to her (which I wasn't going to do anyway, because teenager though she is, I suspect she'd find it overwhelmingly sad as well).

My version had the red poppy too, but it's so abstract I didn't mind, because the Australian cover looks like some kind of ghost story of only middling quality to me. As for the title—I got both versions. The US cover has the truncated title, but the dramatization is Australian and the reader gave it in full.

May I also just give a shout-out to the audio version, by the way? Narration can primarily enhance a story experience, detract from it, or execute it neutrally (I say “primarily” because most have at least a little of each). Rebecca Macauley's reading of On the Jellicoe Road lands squarely in the first category. Her Taylor is flawless, and the other voices are good-to-amazing. With her narration, she brings the rich emotions of the book to life.

(Although due to only listening to the book, I was momentarily thrown off rereading this post to learn that Webb's sister is called “Narnie” rather than “Nani.”)
Wardog at 12:58 on 2009-09-10
I am increasingly pleased I wrote this review - the book had such an impact on me that I'm glad other people reading it as a consquence.

I'm so glad it effected you as strongly as it did me - it's a truly remarkable and wonderful book. I did cry pretty much the whole way through it but I never resented the fact it made me do that, nor did I find it was unpleasant, the way strong emotions can sometimes be.

It's such a hard book to recommend to people because it is such an emotional read.

But, God, yes it's remarkable - and you for commenting, I really think everyone should read this book.
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2009-09-10
Thank you for reviewing it, and putting me on to such a fabulous thing.

(Yes, it is a hard book to recommend, although I seem to be getting the unshakable urge to proselytize it now.)
Jamie Johnston at 19:59 on 2017-07-13
This review has really stuck in my mind for all these years, so much so that I've come to remember it as possibly the first thing I ever read on Ferretbrain – which is clearly wrong because I'd been not only reading but contributing to the site for over a year before the review was posted. I also remembered 'On the Jellicoe Road' as being the first book I put on my 'to read' list when I got a Goodreads account (over two years after reading this review) and that memory does turn out to be right.

And after all that, I recently got round to actually tracking down a copy and reading it! No need to say any more than that I completely agree with everything you said about it, Kyra, and thank you for the recommendation.
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