I read On the Jellicoe Road, a novel for young adults by Australian author Melina Marchetta, on a rainy night while staying in a caravan on holidays at the beach. Branches were brushing the roof and the wind howled and screeched, rocking the caravan. I could have been at sea, lost in the blackness of night. Perfect reading weather. Perfect for reading this un-put-downable novel until it was finished in the early hours of morning.
When it was released, lots of Melina Marchetta's fans didn't really know what to make of On the Jellicoe Road and now I can see why. Her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, was (and still is) very popular with teenagers in Australia and was made into a popular film. While I found Looking for Alibrandi entertaining and realistic, I also thought it was a little too simple and straightforward. On the Jellicoe Road is a much more sophisticated novel and one which rewards the reader's patience as the plot lines are slowly revealed. I loved this new style but some young readers might miss the straightforwardness of Marchetta's previous books.
It feels like Marchetta has found her voice in On the Jellicoe Road. She has developed a complex, but highly engaging plot about a young girl, Taylor, who lives at a rural boarding school in western New South Wales. Taylor is trying to negotiate the annual turf war between her school, the kids in town and the local cadet unit, at the same time as she tries to solve the mystery around her friend Hannah's disappearance which is somehow connected to Taylor's abandonment by her mother when she was a young child.
The story is told through Taylor's eyes, interspersed with excerpts from a manuscript for a novel being written by Hannah. Slowly the manuscript and Taylor's story become entwined. There is a sense of menace that lingers just under the surface of the story; there is talk between the students about a serial killer who targets children and speculation about which adult might be the killer. Marchetta also vividly captures the violence and secretiveness of youth as the young teenagers wage their quite vicious wars right under the noses of the mostly ineffective and oblivious adults in the story.
Marchetta also develops a romantic storyline between Taylor and the leader of the Cadet unit, Jonah. This is one of the most successful parts of the story. It is realistically and sensitively portrayed and the tension between Taylor and Jonah really propels the story.
It is so refreshing to read books written for young adults that are challenging and complex. While not everyone will love On the Jellicoe Road I think that if this is the direction that Marchetta is taking with her writing, then I can't wait to read what she comes up with next.