Thursday, 05 February 2009
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.
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.
Themes: Young Adult / Children