Judged by Roslyn • Find her on Goodreads
I knew that Jellicoe Road (originally published in Australia as On the Jellicoe Road) by Melina Marchetta was going to be a hard act to follow when I finished it and thought, ‘Wow. Just wow,’ and immediately turned back to reread the first few pages just for the sheer pleasure of watching the images and themes come full circle.
This is the first book I’ve read by Marchetta, although I’ve seen the film based on Looking for Alibrandi. The movie is about family and community: the conflicts within them and the ties that bind them – and, not surprisingly for a novel marketed as YA, about finding one’s identity. Assuming Alibrandi was faithful to the novel, I imagined that Jellicoe might well share these themes. And indeed it does.
In contrast, everything I’d read about Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White (also my first experience with its author) suggested that it was the kind of book I’d be less likely to enjoy. Generally speaking, realist YA/teenage fiction isn’t really my preferred genre. Both Jellicoe Road and Life Without Friends would be categorised as realist fiction, but I thought Life in particular might be a rather pedestrian, depressing tale of drugs and teenage angst and far too ‘realist’ for my taste, especially as I had read Jellicoe Road first and was so impressed by it.
I was so wrong. Life Without Friends turned out to be so good that I knew coming to a decision was going to be really, really hard.
First off, what do the two books have in common? Both are about teenage girls who are at a crossroads in their lives; both have been traumatised by events in their lives and haunted, to different extents, by events in the past of which they have little knowledge. Both books deal, in different ways, with the issue of silence: a lack of communication, especially between teenagers and the adults in their lives. Both feature characters who are vivid and smart and funny and engaging, and the female protagonists both develop meaningful love relationships. Both books involve coming to terms with a difficult past and learning to forgive. Neither book, despite the presence of tragedy and difficult themes, is anything approaching depressing; quite the contrary, in fact. Both are superbly written pieces of work and both totally deserve to win this match in the YA/MG Book Battle, although I’m only too painfully aware that only one can.
Jellicoe Road is so intricately woven and multi-layered that I find it a really difficult novel to describe. I could put it baldly and say that it’s about Taylor, who is a boarder at a school near an Australian town, and whose assumptions about the people and world around her are based on vague and confusing memories. And it’s about how Taylor begins to make sense of the world she’s living in, the people in it, and her past.
These memories and assumptions turn out to be largely inaccurate and distorted. But she also has regular dreams of a boy in a tree, who turns out not only to be someone very close to her but pivotal to the structure of the novel. This is where the novel almost kind of dips a toe out of the ‘reality book’ genre – there’s almost a magical feel about it as it ducks and weaves among dreams, memories and concrete reality.
The ‘non-reality book’ feel of the novel for me also comes from the way, from the very first page, it just drops you into a strange world and expects you to figure it out. It’s a little reminiscent of spec fic in that respect; the first few chapters are quite confusing. The book opens with an account in italics; we don’t find out who this is about until later on. From that account, on the first page:
‘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.’
The combination of deep sadness and slight whimsy in this sentence drew me in immediately and is representative of the feel of the book.
Soon, seemingly out of the blue, references are made to ‘Cadets,’ ‘Townies,’ ‘the Houses,’ the ‘Hermit,’ ‘Brigadier’ and ‘the boy in the tree’ – just like that, without any explanation – and for quite a long while, for me it was a bit like reading an SF/F novel. (I’ve since learned that Marchetta has actually written fantasy novels; having read this novel, this doesn’t surprise me.)
So the novel starts out like an elaborate out-of-focus set of images, and the whole thing slowly resolves and becomes clear, like an intricate jigsaw puzzle, or a kaleidoscopic image that gradually comes into focus. It even reminded me just a little of Diana Wynne Jones in the way the reader has to make sense of a lot of unruly facts and unravel the various layers and images, which Marchetta then superbly teases out and weaves into a multi-layered, evocative story.
The way in which the two story lines – the italicised sections and those from Taylor’s point of view – interact and intersect create the mystery of the story. A territory war is taking place among the teenagers in the area; Hannah, the woman who is a mother figure for Taylor, is writing a manuscript about five teenagers from two different families who are bonded together by a series of tragedies that occurred before Taylor’s birth and during her early years. And then Hannah disappears, and the pieces slowly start to come together. Taylor’s relationship with Jonah, one of the Cadets, forms part of the many connections to the past.
As mentioned earlier, Taylor’s memories of her past (partly mythologised, as children’s memories often are), and her increasingly disturbing dreams are woven throughout the plot, becoming part of the mystery, and lending a touch of the fantastic to the novel. ‘Magic realism’ comes to mind here, but no – that’s not quite right. There’s certainly more than a hint that Taylor’s dreams reflect objective reality – it might possibly be just that Taylor unconsciously remembers or intuitively understands the mysteries the book is dealing with, but at times they seem more than that. On one occasion, a dream of Jonah’s seems to be prescient and averts tragedy for both of them. Again, whether this is because his unconscious has picked up on the truth and warned him, or whether there really is a hint of something a little paranormal or fantastical here is unclear. In a way, these dreams are really more like visions. I like that their nature is left undefined, but I also like that they leave me with a palpable sense of poetry and the fantastic.
I enjoyed the richness and complexity of Jellicoe, its characters, and the sense of connectedness among the characters. Taylor herself is totally believable: tough and vulnerable and longing to understand what has been hidden from her until this point in her life. As is common in YA, Taylor learns who she really is, her real history, abut also who the people around her really are. Jonah, too, deeply traumatised from tragedies in his own past, is able to shed his tendency to violence and begins to understand that past better. By the end of the novel both have a sense of family and history which brings a sense of cohesiveness and meaning to both their lives. It’s not just a sense of personal identity that matters here; it’s family identity, and more than that, it’s a sense of community and an appreciation of what lasts.
Which brings me to a small quibble about Jellicoe, and the following two paragraphs do contain spoilers – relatively mild ones, really, but nevertheless, be warned.
Despite the fact that in real life adults do hide things from children, and although there are good reasons in the book for it, I nevertheless found myself wondering at times whether it was really credible that so much would be deliberately hidden from Taylor by people so deeply connected with her. Or perhaps it’s not so much the secrets themselves. Even if those secrets needed to be kept, some kind of reassurance could have been offered by the people who know her real history. For example, when Hannah has to go away, why wouldn’t she leave a simple ‘Can’t explain, but don’t worry, I’ll be back’ note to Taylor, even if she couldn’t say anything else? Yes, the school principal is able to reassure Taylor, and Hannah does eventually call, but surely, given Taylor’s past experiences, it would make sense for Hannah to offer some reassurance. So even though there are good reasons for hiding Taylor’s history from her, I’m not entirely convinced that it needed to be taken so far. It’s clearly plot-driven, because without those central mysteries, there wouldn’t be this particular novel. But given the context of the multiple tragedies from the past, I can accept the desire of the adults (and one adult in particular) to protect Taylor as a plausible, if not perfect, explanation for their silence. This, and a few related other issues, remain unanswered questions for me rather than huge issues that interfered with my reading experience.
One of the things I find most interesting about this novel is that despite containing some very difficult themes – a fatal car crash, drug addiction, accidental killing, serial murder – for me, at least, it contains a strong touch of magic and the unexplained. And there is so much tragedy concentrated in this group of people – tragedy piled on tragedy – and yet the ending, for me, is so incandescent that it was immensely satisfying (and yet perhaps just slightly implausible at the same time).
And now we come to Life Without Friends, which I really did suspect I wasn’t going to like very much, or at least not as much as Jellicoe Road. While Jellicoe is set in a small town in contemporary Australia, Life is set in Boston, Massachusetts and was published in 1987 – that’s sort of contemporary, but there have been quite significant social changes since then – not to mention cultural differences between the two countries – lending quite a different feel to the two books. Life is written in a clear, semi-formal, almost old-fashioned style, one I found myself feeling very comfortable with, and enjoyed very much. It’s relatively easy to describe its plot, which is complicated in a way, but it’s factually much simpler that of Jellicoe. I’m not going to say much about the story except to say that it’s about high school student Beverly, who is already traumatised by her mother’s death (which may have been a suicide), and is further traumatised by events that have recently taken place among her high school friends. As in Jellicoe, the themes are tough ones: violence, drug use, murder. Beverly is overcome by guilt, self-hate, distrust and bitterness. She is tightly coiled, mired in self-hate and self-blame, and refuses to express emotion or let anyone near emotionally, including her father and her step-mother, Maryanne.
With consummate skill and subtlety, White shows us Beverly slowly, ever so slowly, uncoiling and opening up, allowing herself to trust and let people near. She begins to see what has happened in her past in perspective and to forgive herself and others. One of the catalysts of this opening out is her therapist, Dr. Samuels. Another is Derek, a boy so sensitive, caring, decent and loving that I – as well as Beverly – fell in love with him. The way Derek is described in the novel – his distinctive style of speaking, his laid-back perceptiveness, his straightforward reasonableness – makes him feel startlingly real. A small, protesting part of me does want to ask whether any boy of that age (teens or early 20s) could actually be so impressively and unfailingly sensitive. But he is written so utterly convincingly that it barely registers on the quibble-scale. Characterisation in general is one of the great strengths of the novel – Beverly, Dr. Samuels, Derek, Beverly’s father and her step-mother are so vividly drawn and the interactions among them are exquisitely conveyed. Maryanne must be the step-mother from heaven. She handles everything just right, with humour, tact, sensitivity and generosity.
And yet, when I think about it, that does bring me to one tiny quibble about the novel. I realise that Beverley has shut herself up tightly against both her father and Maryanne – and her father’s uptightness and limitations are very obvious – and of course Maryanne is careful to not go beyond the boundaries of a step-mother (which is one of the endearing things about her – she tries to be supportive but doesn’t try to be Beverly’s mother), but all the same I still can’t help wondering why on earth any adult in Beverly’s life, including Maryanne herself, couldn’t have said even one of the things that Derek ends up saying to Beverly once he learns the truth. Even if Beverly had refused to listen, or had run out of the room, or lashed out, why couldn’t Maryanne have just said, ‘You know, sweetie, it wasn’t your fault’ or ‘How awful it must have been for you’? However, this isn’t as much a potential issue in this book than the silence of the adults is in Jellicoe, where the question of why the adults let Taylor remain clueless for so long seems to me to be more central because it’s fundamental to the plot.
So in Life Without Friends we have an exquisite jewel of a book – it’s a fairly slim volume and is deceptively simple, with a limpid-like clarity. Its style is quite different from that of Jellicoe, whose writing is more expressive and lyrical and at times has a kind of dreamy richness about it. In Life, the writing is very taut, clear and contained, almost like Beverly herself. At the same time the novel has is quite extraordinarily psychologically astute and nuanced. It starts out on the surface, and broadens out and deepens and opens out as Beverly herself does. Jellicoe, on the other hand, starts out in loose, blurry focus, a confusing jumble of images, and both sharpens and opens out as Taylor comes to bring together the threads of her past.
This decision was a tough one. I hugely enjoyed both books, despite a few minor reservations about both (more, in fact, about Jellicoe than about Friends). Despite their commonalities, they are very different novels. It’s that old cliché: how do you compare apples and oranges? What criteria can I use? I’d re-read both in a heartbeat. It was close, so close, but in the end, the choice felt crystal clear to me.
Now let me admit it. Life Without Friends – leaving aside my little quibble which is barely a quibble at all – is very nearly perfect, and it’s almost single-handedly convinced me to read more novels in the realist YA fiction genre, in which it is situated very solidly; while Jellicoe Road raises some questions for me that I almost, but can’t quite, find answers for.
And if Life Without Friends sits squarely in the realist genre, Jellicoe Road is… what exactly? Yes, I know it’s also technically (as far as I know, anyway) realist YA fiction, but to me there is something else about it, something quite magical. Life Without Friends is magical, too, of course, in the most general sense of the word. But if Jellicoe is realist fiction, then its hints of fantasy elements makes it feel, to me, somehow, different. It has something about it I love most of all – a sense of mystery and magic, a sense of expansion and layering as well as depth.
And that’s why at the very last resort, when I absolutely have to choose, I find myself going for the touch of the fantastic, for richness and mystery and complexity, for the sheer messiness of life conveyed with such style and skill, for the sense of community, for the joy of seeing a multi-layered story and set of images coming full circle. I do love Life Without Friends’ exquisite simplicity and depth, its almost flawless structure, and its unforgettable characters. But, even though Jellicoe’s flaws aren’t insignificant, and even though I do love Life Without Friends – and I do want to emphasise this, because it was so close – in the end I’m going to go with the one that has the extra magical something, and for me that’s Jellicoe Road.