REVIEW: Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

In brief: Jean Harley was knocked off her bicycle and died. This is how her family and friends carry on.

The good: Beautiful story and prose.

The not-so-good: I would have loved to read more of some of the characters’ lives.

Why I chose it: Thanks to Readings– this book is one of the shortlisted titles for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.

Year: 2017

Pages: 242

Publisher: University of Queensland Press

Setting: Adelaide, Australia and USA

Rating: 9 out of 10

Jean Harley Was Here is a book that should be sad, but isn’t. It’s a strong and uplifting story that leaves the reader with hope. It’s also the kind of novel that gets under your skin that you don’t want to end.

When I mention the plot, you will probably wonder why I’m making the above statements. The book is a reflection of grief after Jean Harley dies after falling off her bicycle and being hit by a car. There isn’t much of Jean herself in this book, but her memory and loss is felt very strongly by those close and not-so-close to her. Her husband, Stan. Son, Orion. Mother in law, Marion. Best friends, Neddy and Viv. The family dog, Digger. And the man who was driving the car, Charley. While the common focus is Jean and carrying on after her death, these characters are all interesting in their own right. Marion is a later life playwright. Charley was taught to read in prison. Neddy’s life revolves around her children and Viv lives for work and flings.

The story of life after the event is told in chapters from different points of view. I never knew who we were going to hear from next, nor how much time had passed. That was a good thing. It kept me eager to find out more about what was happening with Charley or Neddy and it revealed the healing process. Jean is never forgotten even as time moves on. Each character is finely crafted, flawed and realistic. They are just interesting people, who would generally fit in the category of ‘ordinary’ but when you follow their lives, are extraordinary. Charley led a hard life which ended up in prison. He only wanted to learn to read so he could read his mum’s letters and eventually write back to her. Lisa was the patient teacher and they struck up a friendship through letters. Charley is sorry for what happened with Jean, but explains his previous life as being what he deserved.

Neddy and Viv are like chalk and cheese. Neddy was a promising writer, now she’s a full time mum. Does she love her new life? No. Would she swap it? Absolutely not. Even though Neddy is mum, cook, cleaner, driver and tethered to her house and/or a child, she celebrates what she has and knows to take small steps to manage her life (even if it is just cleaning Weet-Bix off the table and her). Viv is a mysterious high flyer of the design world, always ready for a challenge and another house to make over. She’s glamourous and tells herself she’s not one for children. Now it might be too late to change her mind – but is motherhood what she wants?

Jean Harley Was Here is a beautiful, strong story exploring grief with memorable characters. It’s a book you will remember long after you’ve finished it. Heather Taylor Johnson’s writing is just right – not too sad, not too trite but sensitively handled.

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