Jean Harley Was Here, by Heather Taylor Johnson (2017)
Warning: some spoilers
Jean Harley Was Here, by Adelaide-based author Heather Taylor Johnson, is about friend, wife, mother, traveller and cyclist Jean Harley. Or rather, as suggested by the title, it is about her absence. A tragic and fatal bicycle accident sets the story in motion, and what follows is a story told from the perspectives of people who knew Jean or had some connection with her, and the novel spans several years as the shock waves of the tragic event are felt by everyone close to her, and even by people she didn’t know.
Jean Harley is an American who has lived in Australia for many years, is married to the love of her life, Stan, mother to a four year old boy, Orion, and best friends with two women she has known since university, Neddy and Viv. Each chapter is told from the perspective of someone in Jean’s life: Stan, Orion, Neddy, Viv, her mother Pearl, her mother-in-law Marion, an old flame from university, her American niece, her dog, and Charley, the ex-con who accidentally killed her. Through the memories and lives of each character we slowly learn more about Jean Harley: her personality, her travels, her plans, and her impact on those around her. The exception to these revelations of Jean’s life, and perhaps the strongest arc of the novel, is Charley. When he hit Jean Harley on that fateful summer day, Charley was just trying to post a letter to Lisa, the woman who taught him to read in prison. The novel comes full circle when, seven years after Jean’s death, Orion receives a letter from Charley explaining how Jean’s death had affected him, and a correspondence between them begins.
Part of what makes Jean Harley Was Here unique is that it is the story of a woman whose perspective we never hear from, yet by the end of the novel the reader feels as though they have known her for years. There are not many stories in which the main character never gets a direct look-in, or even appears, alive, in the timeframe of the main story. But Johnson has somehow created a character who is imagined, remembered and grieved-over through the intricate overlapping of her life with the lives of the people she connected with, and it is so beautiful that I fought back tears more than once.
Although the story is bittersweet, it is written in gentle, redolent prose that is highly readable and renders the work evocative and easily digestible. I took longer than intended to finish the work – three weeks for a 240 page book – as I was often unavoidably interrupted. Each time I was forced to lay the book down I worried that the melancholy story would prevent me from picking it up again, but a combination of the writing style, short chapters, and vibrant, tactile characters meant I was eager to dive back into the story until I reached its conclusion.
My only complaint of this novel is that I would have liked to hear more from Viv, one of Jean’s best friends. Years after Jean’s death Viv and Neddy finally find the time to meet up and reassess their friendship, and it quickly becomes clear that Jean was the one who held them together; she pulled Viv, the bachelorette with little interest in motherhood, and Neddy, the mother of three whose intention was always to marry and settle down, together into an unstoppable threesome of sisterhood. In their last meeting Viv and Neddy cannot find common ground between them. They argue and air their grievances, some of their gripes decades old, and reconcile enough that they enjoy their night together in that pub, on that night. But of their friendship for the rest of their lives, we learn nothing, and I would have liked some more closure for them.
Ultimately this is a very enjoyable read, but be ready to cry at the last chapter, and then spend the next few days closely examining your relationships and wondering what if, what if…