Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Paying Attention to the Road Signs

Usually when I read a YA novel, I expect something easy, that I can plow through quickly. But as many reviewers have noted, reading Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road is not as easy as you might expect (Bookshelves of Doom warns "it's not an easy read" and This Delicious Solitude calls it "challenging and complex"). Most other reviewers have found the book worth the trouble. I think this is because the rewards of the book come late in it, so when you get to the end, you feel satisfied with what happens to the characters and with your investment in the story. However, I don't think that entirely excuses how difficult it is to get interested in this book; how lost you will feel at the beginning of Jellicoe Road. Especially for American readers, it takes longer than it should to get your bearings.

Once you do, though, it's like the difference between riding passively in a car and driving the car while paying attention to the road signs so you can get where you want to go. That didn't happen, for me, until about 200 pages in. And even then, it's hard to explain what became compelling. Usually I can quote a passage and show you why I began to like something. This time, no. The different strands of the mystery began to come together, until the story became greater than the words the characters say. In the end, though, like all good stories, it's a love story. And I can show you what I like about that:

"What are you thinking?" I whisper after a while
"That you deserve romance," he says.
I trace his face with my fingers. "Let me see. A guy tells me that he would have thrown himself in front of a train if it wasn't for me and then drives seven hours straight, without whingeing once, on a wild-goose chase in search of my mother with absolutely no clue where to start. He is, in all probability, going to get court-martialled because of me, has put up with my moodiness all day long, and knows exactly what to order me for breakfast. It doesn't get any more romantic than that, Jonah."
"I'm in year eleven, Taylor. I'm not going to get court-martialled."
"Just say you get expelled?"
"Then so be it. I still would have driven for seven hours and ordered you hot chocolate and white toast and marmalade."
"And you don't call that romantic? God, you've got a lot to learn."
I sit up in the dark and after a moment I take off my singlet and I hear him taking off his T-shirt and we sit there, holding each other, kissing until our mouths are aching, and then we're pulling off the rest of our clothes and I'm under him and I feel as if I'm imprinted onto his body. Everything hurts, every single thing including the weight of him and I'm crying because it hurts and he's telling me he's sorry over and over again, and I figure that somewhere down the track we'll work out the right way of doing this but I don't want to let go, because tonight I'm not looking for anything more than being part of him. Because being part of him isn't just anything. It's kind of everything."

Despite the loveliness of passages like that one, reading Jellicoe Road is a darkening journey. It's full of ugly struggles where you root for characters on both sides of the conflict . Eventually, the plot does have a satisfying conclusion. To get to the end of this road, though, you have to marshall some endurance.


jess said...

Great review! Reading that passage just brought the book back for me, and I'm remembering how lovely Marchetta's writing is.

I've got her next book Finnikin of the Rock sitting on my bedside table pile. Have you had a chance to read it yet?

Jeanne said...

No, I haven't read any other Marchetta yet. I'll look for your review of Finnikin of the Rock!