I really enjoyed Heather Taylor Johnson’s first novel Pursuing Love and Death. Her second, Jean Harley Was Here deals with similar themes of family, love and loss, but the death of Jean is central to this story.
She is happily married to Stan and son Orion is four, nearly five, when she is hit by a van when riding her bike. The story of her life and that of those left behind is told from the perspectives of her loved ones – family, friends, the pet dog, showing their time together before she died, and then trying to come to terms with her death and moving forward without her.
Each of the characters is well developed and reflects more about Jean at the same time. Close friends Neddy and Viv, from university days, so different in personality and lifestyle, but in the trio with Jean work well, then without her fall apart. Philip, an ex-lover from before she met Stan, still holds a candle for her and turns up to the funeral.
But the interesting layer to this story of loss is the one behind Charley, the man driving the van. His life before the accident and the way he deals with it in the aftermath make this novel much more than just the grief that each of these people experience. This is done very well, from that of little Orion, with his lack of understanding, the devastation of Stan, Jean’s mother back in the States, her brother and niece, the parents-in-law trying to help, a neighbor, down to Digger the dog.
Charley’s story alone is interesting, and he is dealt with great empathy and grace. A complex man who has lived by his mistakes, and has dyslexia, but can compose the poem –
Memory does not walk behind us
Or next to us or in front of us.
It is inside us.
His connection to Lisa is good for him and gives great insight into his life, and that of a remarkable woman. When she cries Charley realises he has ‘never known this kind of openness with a woman before. Tears went with anger or alcohol or drugs’.
There are many poignant moments like when Orion loses his first tooth. Stan has to play tooth fairy and get the pillbox Jean’s mother had given her. Jean had planned to put Orion’s first tooth in it, but she wasn’t there to do that. All the first things and the plans they had, so Stan develops ‘The Things I Want to Share with You’ list to help him survive.
The sudden death of a young woman leads to what-ifs from all of them. But they have no alternative but to go on, and they do, all of which makes for great reading. I loved this book and highly recommend it.