Recent Reading: Melina Marchetta

I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree and at the exact moment I’m about to hear the answer that I’ve been waiting for, the flashlights yank me out of what could have been one of those perfect moments of clarity people talk about for the rest of their lives. If I were prone to dramatics, I could imagine my sighs would have been heard from the boundaries of the school to the town down below.

The question begs to be asked, “Why the flashlights?” Turning on the light next to my bed would have been much less conspicuous and dramatic. But if there is something I have learned in the past five years, it’s that melodrama plays a special part in the lives of those at the Jellicoe School.



This story isn’t quite what I expected. For one thing, there’s a touch of magic in it, though it’s a contemporary YA, not a fantasy novel. For another, it reads very much indeed like a dystopian novel, although it’s not that either. Plus, there’s a definite mystery wrapped around the main story. Here’s the back cover copy:

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.

The moving, joyous and brilliantly compelling new novel from the best-selling, multi-award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

Which is all very well, but as you can see from the opening, the protagonist, Taylor, is dreaming about a boy when the story opens. This particular dream, and others, continues to be important through the story and particularly at the end. This is what I mean by a touch of magic.

Also, Jellicoe School? The codified warfare between the students of the school, the townies, and the military cadets who spend a few weeks camping nearby in the summer . . . very dystopian feel to this element of the story. The adults don’t know what the heck is going on, even though the war gets pretty violent at times. No actual fatalities, but if the kids hadn’t gotten this all straightened out, I can hardly see how they would have avoided real trouble eventually.

The story is not exactly about sorting out this war thing, though. It’s about Taylor getting her own life in order by working out her relationships to her friends at the school, to Chaz Santangelo (one of the Town kids) and most of all Jonah Griggs (leader of the Cadets). It’s also about Taylor sorting out her relationships with her mother, who abandoned her at the school years ago, and Hannah, who has been more or less acting as a mother to her since.

So it’s a relationship story. Obviously. Except it’s really two stories braided together, because the story of what happened to Taylor’s mother and Hannah and their friends seventeen years ago is the frame story and also braided through the current-day story. Working out what happened to that earlier group of friends gives JELLICOE ROAD a definite mystery element as well. So it’s complicated.

My overall reaction: It’s a pretty dark story. I, unlike whoever wrote the back cover copy, would not have picked the word “joyous” to describe it. What happened seventeen years ago is horrifically grim, and as we find out more about the aftermath, it just gets grimmer. There is a happy ending to that story . . . sort of . . . but the best thing you can say about the contemporary story line is: Taylor and her friends may go through some tough times, but it is *nothing* to what happened to the older generation. And everyone does wind up in a better place at the end than they were in at the beginning, but . . . moving, yes, but joyous?

I actually disliked this story at first. I picked it up originally because of Chachic’s recommendation, Brandy‘s comments, and Maureen’s review and because the back cover copy sounded interesting. Two of the linked reviews (links now correct; sigh) refer to the confusing beginning. This is true, but it wasn’t a problem for me. What was a problem for me is that at the beginning, Taylor is incredibly self-absorbed. I know she was going through a lot, but I really disliked her. Then a friend of hers at the school calls her on that and from that point on, she starts to grow into a much more likeable person. By the end, I liked her a lot. The bit where she tells off Sergeant Santangelo for being angry at his son, Chaz, is one of my favorite scenes. I really enjoyed seeing Taylor grow up and seeing the relationships between her and her friends deepen. Plus, Jonah Griggs! His backstory is *grim*. His background with Taylor is . . . also grim, in unexpected ways. But how he and Taylor figure out what happened in the past and work out their current relationship – all that is pretty much perfect.

So, yeah, by the end, I loved this book. Since I was in the mood for emotionally intense contemporaries, I quickly picked up a couple more of Marchetta’s: SAVING FRANCESCA and THE PIPER’S SON.

This morning, my mother didn’t get out of bed.

It meant I didn’t have to go through one of her daily pep talks, which usually begin with a song that she puts on at 6:45 every morning. It’s mostly seventies and eighties retro crap, anything from “I Will Survive” to some woman called Kate Bush singing “Don’t give up.” When I question her choices, she says they’re random, but I know that they are subliminal techniques designed to motivate me into being just like her.

But this morning there is no song. There is no advice on how to make friends with the bold and the interesting. No twelve-point plan on the best way to make a name for myself in a hostile environment. No motivational messages stuck on my mirror urging me to do something that scares me every day.

There’s just silence.

SAVING FRANCESCA is about Francesca’s life falling apart when her mother, Mia, drops into an episode of dense clinical depression, and about the way deep friendships can help you cope with personal disaster.

This is another one I didn’t much care for at first, partly because Mia’s little motivational messages on the mirror etc etc would have driven me utterly insane if she’d been my mother – God save me from pushy self-help coaches – and partly because I think of depression clinically and was horrified with the way Mia’s husband and family refused to even consider medical treatment. I could just *see* the connections between Mia’s neurons withering as her husband protested that medication is bad and Mia wouldn’t want to take, gasp, pills. Honest to God, it made me want to smack him. What if she had diabetes, would he be all, “Can’t use artificial insulin, medicine is bad for you”? Of course not. I was all This is a *progressive* disease, you jackass, it only gets worse, you want to treat it *aggressively* right from the start.

If I’d been there, I’d have made Mia’s husband read Kramer’s AGAINST DEPRESSION first thing and done everything possible to get him over the idea that Treating Depression is Bad. And if I’d been writing the story – it’s not the type I would write, though – but if it was, I’d have had them try antidepressants and had the meds simply not work. Sometimes they don’t, but damn, people, of course you should try them, not just reject the whole idea out of hand. Hey, did you all know that depression is so closely linked to heart disease that if it caused no emotional suffering at all, it would still be one of the biggest health issues today?

Of course none of this is the focus of the story. This is Francesca’s story, not Mia’s. I did my best to set all that aside, pretty successfully. I had a lot of sympathy for Francesca. Naturally Francesca is the lynchpin of the book, Francesca and her relationships with her brother (I loved this) and her father (I believed in this) and her friends (the main focus).

I could just see how Francesca had tried to erase her own personality in order to get along at her old school; I could see why she resisted making friends at her new school; I *really* enjoyed seeing her build friendships with Tara and Siobhan and Justine – and Thomas Mackee, James Hailler, and Will Trombal – almost despite herself. Francesca was a very sympathetic protagonist from the beginning – and very likeable, too, by the end. I would have loved to find out more about Jimmy Hailler. He was the most intriguing secondary character for me. The way he pushed himself into a relationship with Mia was unexpected; who in his family suffers from something, and what? We never find out.

Unlike JELLICOE ROAD, there is absolutely no magical element to this story. No mystery. No dystopian feel. This is a straight-up contemporary; an emotionally-intense tightly focused relationship story. It’s genuinely moving, and I wonder if I’m the only reader who finds the relationship between Francesca and her father the most moving element? Perhaps because that relationship is the most shattered at the beginning, and the hardest to re-build.

Anyway, after reading this one, I immediately moved on to a companion book, a story set several years later, with Thomas Mackee as the protagonist: THE PIPER’S SON. This one differs from the other because there is a secondary pov protagonist, Georgie, Thomas’ aunt, who is in her forties and pregnant. There’s no medical problem with the pregnancy; the problems are all with the relationships.

Both Thomas and Georgie and their whole extended family are dealing with tragedy: the stupid, senseless loss of Thomas’ uncle, Georgie’s brother, in a terrorist bombing in London. This happened some time ago, but the family is far from over it. The loss echoes an earlier tragedy that is too complicated to go into but that has affected everything and that frames this whole story.

Georgie best expresses what this is like:

The grief hits her hard one day. The way it can’t be controlled. The way that yesterday can be good and so can the day before that, but then today comes and she’s back to zero. How she can’t type words into her computer or even press the in-box for her mail. The effort it takes to walk. How words can’t form in her mouth and how her blood feels paralyzed. For the first time since she can remember, she finds herself dialing Sam’s number but hangs up the moment she hears his voice because too much emotion goes into keeping Sam at an arm’s distance.

I really like that. It’s hard to put that kind of intensity into words. Marchetta is very good at this.

This story is, again, about the importance of friendship. Also, even more so, it’s about the importance of forgiveness. How Georgie puts her relationship with Sam back together, how Thomas puts his relationship with his father back together, how Thomas rebuilds the broken friendships between himself and Francesca and (most of all) Tara – forgiveness is the soul of this story. I loved the bit where Francesca et al haul Thomas off to see his mother, and I LOVED the bit at the end where Thomas finally catches up to Tara at the airport. Wonderful stuff there.

Of the three, THE PIPER’S SON is my favorite.

As it happens, I have a fantasy trilogy by Marchetta on my TBR pile right now. I’ll be really interested in seeing how that compares to her contemporaries, when I have time to read a trilogy. September, I expect. Not right now, because:

Writing update: I am just about to send the rough draft of KERI to my agent, after which I will take a real stab at completing the biiig revision of KEHERA before September. Then I WILL TAKE A BREAK. Except, granted, I will need to do a final editorial read-through of the Black Dog short stories and try my hand at the ebook conversion process, but! That may be annoying and tedious, but it cannot possibly eat my life the way pushing to finish / revise a book does.

Also! Update for the HOUSE OF SHADOWS sequel: the climactic scene, where I got stuck last January? Yeah, that unexpectedly worked itself out in my head a couple days ago, even though I haven’t given that WIP a single thought since I set it aside lo these many months ago. Who knows how these things happen? I think it should now be much easier to finish during the upcoming Christmas break. Yes, I took quick notes. I would hate to forget the shape of the new improved climactic scene.

Please Feel Free to Share:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top