On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta
Whatever is now covered up will be uncovered and every secret will be made known.
It was several years ago that I read Jellicoe Road, and during those few short days, this book was my life. I always knew I was going to have to reread this one, to go back over and savour the story, dive deeper into the exquisitely-crafted mystery and have my heart broken all over again.
Jellicoe Road did not disappoint my memories. I just finished the book the second time and have tears running down my face, in part just because of the beauty of this story. There is so much hope and life and despair and mystery and love. All of the strength to be found in human frailty.
After a second reading, I feel ready to place Jellicoe Road in my top three books of all time. This is a huge deal, because obviously: all the other books. And yet there is something so beautiful, lyrical and haunting about the book that hasn't left me yet. That's some good writing.
Twenty years ago, lives collided in a horrific car accident that left two families shattered. From this explosion a group of misfits find each other - those that have been forgotten, don't fit in or have been left behind - those looking to belong (longing to be). The ripple effect of this group, the magic and the tragedy, continues on for decades. And all the questions come to a head when Taylor Markham reaches her senior year at the Jellicoe Road state-run boarding school and is made leader of the school's underground and all those students who feel as out of place as her. Taylor knows very little about her family and past and almost all of it is bad: her mother abandoned her at a 7-11 when she was eleven, and the Hermit who lived in the woods near the school whispered something in her ear and then shot himself in the head. Not surprisingly, Taylor doesn't remember much about her childhood.
Now it's not all doom and gloom either. This book has such depth and soul, and it's juxtaposed with the carefree and downright fun. Taylor Markham is tough and complicated, with some serious accumulated baggage after a short 17 years, but she finds joy while fighting the territory wars that her school has been engaging in for the past twenty years, against the Townies and the Cadets who come to camp in the bush for six months of the year. And the war is adorable. Sure, sometimes it involves riots and trips to the police station, but for the most part it's about harmless hostage-taking and booby-trap setting shenanigans you like to see your teenager getting into. And it allows Taylor to get closer to her best friends and enemies: Raffi, who knows too much about her, Santangelo, the sheriff's son who has too much information about her, and Jonah Griggs, who holds too much of her soul.
I fear there is no way for me to write about this book without getting into spoilers, so if you haven't yet this book yet, please stop what you are doing, go out and read this book, then come back so we can discuss ... everything.
Dreams hold extreme significance throughout the book and usually include messages of forgiveness. A boy on a tree has long featured in Taylor's dreams, and likes to talk to her about how she is doing. Often there is a fearful creature that joins them in the tree, and as Taylor unravels the mystery of who her father was and what happened to him, she uncovers the man who needed to be released from his guilt, both in life and also in his soul. Jonah, too, has a dream, wherein his father warns him of danger and he feels as though it is an absolution of his guilt. While after the fact he thinks that must have just been the desperate longing of a scared boy, we learn at the very end of the book that this dream did indeed save his life, as well as Taylor's.
Hannah is an important character in the book, although she is not physically present during most of the action. But her role in the initial gang, her delicacy, her desire to end her life after losing so much, makes her a person that each treats with great care. It's her brother, Webb, who is the spirit of the group - it is his life that instills in each of them a reason to live. When he disappears, they all must deal (or not) with what their world looks like without him, and each of them suffers for it. Hannah seems like she would be the first to crumple. And yet we discover her inner reaches, not just in how she survives and lives and goes on to become a protector of lost souls, creating the life that Webb had always imagined, but also even as a child she had always been a guardian.
"I knew she was dead straightaway because she didn't have a head, Jude, and I stayed in that spot, not moving a single inch and everyone thought I was scared but I wasn't. Because if I moved an inch, Webb would see her and you don't know how much Webb loved her, Jude, and I would have died right there if I knew that Webb saw her like that."
We see that while Webb's spirit burned brightly, Hannah felt the need to protect him in the same way that they all protected Hannah.
Taylor is a force to be reckoned with and has a strong narrative voice throughout the book. She doesn't realize her own vulnerability, though, even as everyone around her tries to protect her, from her past and even herself. The reader, too, can't help but feel immensely protective of her, especially when she keeps on breaking our hearts with her precious few memories of being loved.
Of lying between two people who read me stories of wild things and journeys with dragons, the soft hum of their voices speaking of love and serenity. See, I remember love. That's what people don't understand.
I remember this passage even years later, and I think of it often when I am cuddling my children in to sleep - the importance that they remember they were loved, no matter how the world tries to bring them down.
Taylor's mother, Tate, is another tragic figure who might be easy to hate, except her despair is so relatable. And in the end, she performs an act of extreme bravery in overcoming her addictions while dying of cancer, in order to try to make up for everything that she couldn't do for her daughter. Taylor meets her mother clean, for the first time in six years, and helps her as she finally succumbs to death after what was an incredibly difficult life. But she does it with grace and dignity, and while it may seem like a useless gesture, it means everything to Taylor. Not only does she gain respect for her mother, but sees, flawed as she was, how much her mother has always loved her. And now I am crying again.
And then! And then, there's the postman from Yass. Chills chills chills. There is so much going on in this book, it deserves a read. Then a second and a third. Could not possibly be more highly recommended!