Why I read it: Various friends of mine have been telling me I need to read this book. I was warned about possible ugly-crying and an emotional wringer. It seems to be a much beloved book. I bought it a while ago and finally decided to actually read it. From a quick survey of my Twitter friends, it seems I’m a bit of an outlier. So, YMMV. A LOT.
Warning: This book has been out a while so I feel less guilty about spoilers. What I most want to talk about is very spoilerish. So, ALL THE SPOILER WARNINGS. If you haven’t read Jellicoe Road and you want to, don’t read this review. It’s a very plotty book and while the structure of it didn’t always work for me, I think it probably works best not knowing all that much going in. (It is “safe” for romance readers to read.) I also think that if you haven’t read the book you won’t get a lot of out the discussion below and it could colour your view because I have Things. To. Say.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree. I tell him stories. About the Jellicoe School and the Townies and the Cadets from a school in Sydney. I tell him about the war between us for territory. And I tell him about Hannah, who lives in the unfinished house by the river. Hannah, who is too young to be hiding away from the world. Hannah, who found me on the Jellicoe Road six years ago.
Taylor is leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School. She has to keep the upper hand in the territory wars and deal with Jonah Griggs – the enigmatic leader of the cadets, and someone she thought she would never see again.
And now Hannah, the person Taylor had come to rely on, has disappeared. Taylor’s only clue is a manuscript about five kids who lived in Jellicoe eighteen years ago. She needs to find out more, but this means confronting her own story, making sense of her strange, recurring dream, and finding her mother – who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road.
AMAZON KOBO BOOK DEPOSITORY
I’m putting the entire review under the jump because: SPOILERS
What worked for me (and what didn’t): Jellicoe Road is a story in two parts. One part is the story of five friends and takes place 24 years before the other story. The other is about Taylor, a girl who boards at the Jellicoe School. Her mother dropped her off at the Jellicoe 7/11 one day, made a phone call and left. 15 minutes later, Hannah Schroeder arrives at the 7/11 and takes Taylor home with her. Taylor stays with Hannah for a year, after which Taylor moves into the school. Hannah lives adjacent to the school and is the unofficial/official den mother for Lachlan House which is the faction/house to which Taylor is assigned. Taylor is very close to Hannah but they don’t appear to have a super affectionate relationship. In fact, Taylor is jealous of Hannah’s open affection for a year 7 girl, Jessa McKenzie. Hannah never asks Taylor questions. Taylor wishes she would.
Taylor doesn’t remember much about her life before the 7/11. She doesn’t know who her father was. She remembers her mother is a junkie who got clean sometimes only to fall off the wagon and start shooting up again. Taylor didn’t go to school as a child. She is, for most of the book, uncertain that her mother loves/d her.
Every year, Cadets from a Sydney military school come to Jellicoe for six weeks to do bush/survival stuff. Then begins the annual “Territory Warrs” between the Jellicoe School, the “townies” and the Cadets. This year, Taylor is elected leader of the Jellicoe School faction. Jonah Griggs is the leader of the Cadets and Chaz Santangelo is the leader of the townies. In some ways, the group in Taylor’s story is a mirror of the group from 24 years earlier.
The book starts with a car accident. “Narnie” watches her father die. Her brother Webb is trapped in the car with her. Tate, the only survivor from the other car (her parents and younger sister died in the crash) climbs over to sit with them. They are rescued by Fitz, a townie. The three children end up at the Jellicoe School – presumably because they became wards of the state and the school hosts quite a few of them (but it is not all that clear in the book so I could be wrong on this). The first year the Cadets come, Jude Scanlon is there. He is the fifth in the coterie.
The story slowly doles out the clues that link the events of the past with the story set in the present day. I was warned it would take at least 50 pages to get into – I asked at about page 66 whether it was going to get good soon. I admit I’m not a big YA reader. High school wasn’t my favourite time of life – at the time I felt like I had little in common with my peers. I have even less now. It’s not so much that I find YA hard to get into – it’s that I don’t often read it. I like NA and some of the books which straddle the line but kids acting like kids is not what draws me to a book. I admit the Territory Wars made me roll my eyes. It just seemed so juvenile. Of course, the characters ARE juvenile so it made sense from that perspective and I suppose there wasn’t a lot for kids in the bush to do but it’s not the sort of thing that would ever have had any interest for me and I can’t really relate to it.
My first introduction to Jonah who is supposed to be the romantic hero was him beating up Ben Cassidy – and stepping repeatedly on his fingers because of a territory breach. Which I found appalling. It too me quite a while to warm to Jonah because his early demonstrated behaviour was pretty bad. I did warm to him in the end, but I needed much more from him/about him to really be invested. Taylor is a selective narrator, probably unreliable; there wasn’t as much opportunity to get to know Jonah as I would have liked.
The way the various bits of the story were doled out sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. By page 66 I had guessed that Narnie was Hannah and Tate was Taylor’s mother. I guessed the Brigadier was Jude and Fitz was The Hermit. I wasn’t sure whether Jude was Taylor’s father at that point or Webb – but I had mostly pieced it together. And I twigged about Jessa shortly after. However, other parts of the story lost their impact somewhat because of their position within the structure of the book. For instance, the bit where Fitz first says that he came back for the fifth tin was before the bit that showed what the fifth tin actually was. So, when I could easily see that Fitz was traumatised, I didn’t understand why. For me, it would have worked better the other way around.
When I finished the book, I was a bit nonplussed. I didn’t hate it and it did have an emotional impact on me. I didn’t ugly-cry but I did get teary. (Not that it is all that hard to make me cry in a book). I was thinking maybe a B or B- but I wanted to ponder the book some more.
I slept on it overnight and woke up this morning really angry at Hannah and Jude and basically all the adults in present day story. I guess that means the book was a success because it drew such an emotional response?
Basically I think all the adults in the present day story treated Taylor pretty shabbily. Mostly I blame Hannah and Jude – mostly Hannah. But I have some space to blame Mr. Palmer and Sgt. Santangelo and anyone else who knew and would not answer Taylor’s questions. Taylor had a right to her own history. Yeah, maybe not dump it all on her at age 11 but how hard is it to say “Hi Taylor, I’m your Aunt Hannah and I’m going to look after you now. You’re coming home to live with me? NOT HARD AT ALL HANNAH. Kat said to me on Twitter that Taylor was an unreliable narrator and she pushed people away who wanted to tell her things but I’m actually basing my side-eye on Jude’s account and the unchallenged information in the book that Hannah never told Taylor about their relationship. Dude. She’s an 11 year old girl who’s been dumped at a 7/11. Do you think she might have wanted some love? Some family? Someone to belong to? Hannah – you MUST be able to relate to that – to wanting to belong. I don’t accept she didn’t realise. Tate tells Hannah to look after Taylor but not to be a mother to her because she already has a mum. What the actual fuck Tate? You were a shitty mother. The nicest thing you ever did for Taylor was drop her off at the 7/11 but you are so selfish you had to put a sting in the tail? And Hannah? You thought that was a good idea? That Tate’s junkie wishes ought to be respected over the needs of an abandoned child? Shame on you. And Jude. You’re her guardian too. Shame on you also.
I suppose it *could* be said that Hannah was trying to give Taylor her family history via the manuscript but that doesn’t really fly for me because even without disclosing anything else, Hannah could have made so much difference for Taylor by just saying “hey I’m your aunt.”
The other thing that made me stabby was that at the start of the book, Hannah just takes off. She tells Mr. Palmer, the principal so it’s not like she didn’t have time. Or, you know, A PHONE. How much time does it take to write a note that says “Dear Taylor, I’m going to Sydney for a few weeks to help a friend. I’ll be back. I promise. Love Aunt Hannah”? NOT MUCH HANNAH. I don’t accept Hannah doesn’t realise who she is to Taylor. She’s been the abandoned child – abandoned by death (her parents and Webb) and circumstance (Tate, Fitz, even Jude in some ways). She KNOWS. You don’t just take off without a word. That kind of thing has a crushing impact. It’s shitty behaviour. And one phone call Hannah? ONE? Not good enough.
It could also be said that without Hannah’s shitty behaviour, there wouldn’t be a book. I felt that the narrative was asking me to sympathise with Hannah and cheer for her own HEA. I think Hannah (and Jude and Sgt. Santangelo) ought to have grovelled majorly to Taylor. They did not grovelling at all. Tate grovelled a bit I suppose but I’m stunned at the unspeakable cruelty these adults wrought on a defenceless child. I can see how it’s possible. I can’t approve of it or like it or think it gets a pass because reasons. The child comes first. End of. (As you may be able to tell, I have some strong feelings on this.)
There were parts of the story that took my breath away: when Jonah tells Taylor the real reason he was at the Yass train station when they were 14. When I realised what the fifth tin was all about. There were also parts which confused me a little – we know that Jude and Hannah were together school was done until Taylor was dropped off at the 7/11. After that they were only kind-of together? Why did Jude leave? Did he disapprove of Hannah’s decision not to tell Taylor anything? (I’m not sure this can be inferred from the text all that well but I’d like to think it was a possibility. Even so, stepping out doesn’t relieve Jude of his responsibility to Taylor either). I know Hannah thought Jude wouldn’t stay and I know Jude thought Hannah wanted him to be someone else but they were together for years after Webb died and Tate left and Fitz disappeared into the bush. What happened then? I also realise that Jellicoe Road wasn’t really Hannah’s and Jude’s story (even though it kind of was) but I would have liked to have understood it better.
I don’t feel that my time was wasted by reading it. I can’t say that I liked the book either. I don’t think it will be one I re-read (but then, I don’t do much of that anyway so I’m not sure of the relative value of that statement). It moved me and it made me angry. I felt very protective of Taylor and I was incredibly sad for Webb. I thought the snapshot of rural Australia was authentic and I got a Cold Chisel earworm as well as a Kenny Rogers one. It made me think. It made me react. How do you grade that?
Grade: B-? C+? OR, REALLY, WHO KNOWS
If anyone wants to share their take on why they love this novel so much, what was going on with Hannah and Jude, their take on Hannah’s actions, Jude’s and Sgt. Santangelo’s – go for it. Like I said at the start, I’m sure I’m an outlier. I’m up for a spirited debate if you are. 😀