Book review: Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

(image courtesy UQP)


It’s often not until someone dies that you truly come to understand how deeply connected they were to a whole host of people, all of whom deal with the grief of their loss in their own unique ways.

It happened to me last year when my dad died from a longstanding illness – even as I type those words, in common with anyone who has lost someone close to them, I can’t believe he’s actually dead and I’d give anything for him to be alive outside me as well as inside me (read the book and that will make sense) and as I read Heather Taylor Johnson’s extraordinarily insightful, poignantly well-written book, Jean Harley Was Here, everything I felt when he died came rushing back to me.

That may sound like a bad thing but when you’re in the afterwash of grief, which never really leaves you, just diminishes in daily intensity (somewhat), having someone articulate grief and loss so beautifully and profoundly is actually quite therapeutic.

It gives you the sense that here is someone who understands, who gets it, but even more than that, is able to articulate what that feels like in a way that is immediately accessible and meaningful, and in many ways, groundedly poetic.

“Instead, he [Stan] listened for noise, heard a muffled voice in his son’s room. As he stood in the doorway, he watched his mother read to Orion and tried to remember her reading to him as a boy. He couldn’t. He couldn’t remember so he closed his eyes and imagined it was Jean reading – Jean with her singsong words, shifting from high to low tones as she told stories to their son. Later, Orion would tell he story to Stan that he, his father. who had taught him the riffs of his guitar but it was his mother, Jean, who had taught him rhythm. (P. 19)

Of course, in the case of Jean Harley Was Here, the person most affected by her death is someone who is almost too young at the time of her untimely passing to fully understand what he has lost.

Young Orion, only four when his American-born mother Jean is killed after being knocked from her bike by a thoughtlessly-opened car door into the path of a van in the wrong place at the wrong time, has memories of her playing the animal game with him, and some other snippets here and there, but by and large his memories exist in the letters sent to him by his mother’s friends, and by his Aussie dad Stan, who does his best to keep the memory of the love of his life alive for their son.

As the book opens up and the people close to her have their stories told in flashback, during the period when Jean is lying in hospital in a coma, and in the days, months and years after her death, you come to appreciate how deeply interconnected we all are, and how that comes to matter a great deal to those left behind, especially someone like Orion who  largely only has the memories of other to hold on to.

Taylor Johnson does a magnificent of weaving the stories of Stan, Orion, Jean’s best friends Neddy and Viv, and the man in the van, Charley, together in ways that make you appreciate once again how profoundly we are all intertwined, even if we are not immediately aware of it.


(Artwork courtesy UQP)


It’s the discovery of these emotional entanglements, some of which survive the death of the person in question, and some of which do not, that helps give a sense of proportion to how great a loss their death is.

I mean, we all know that their death is a massive, incalculable loss – that is, of course, never in dispute and we are reminder every single day in ways large and small – but sometimes it all feels amorphous and sad, too big and abstract and overwhelming to even begin grappling with.

You could argue that maybe we don’t need to struggle with quantifying how much of a loss someone is since something like grief exists and affects you ceaselessly, irregardless of the size of it (for those doing the grieving it feels enormous anyway) but somehow we need to, are driven to, striving in some way to make the immeasurable, the unfathomable into something we can possibly see all around and understand.

It may be a fool’s errand and ultimately impossible to fulfill, but as Jean Harley Was Here, illustrates with the power of shared stories and experience, we have to do in some way, hoping we can move on in life and properly honour the person in everything we do.

“He (Charley) was confused. He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel so he just let sadness wash over him. It was so sad that he only had his mum on the inside because he wanted her on the outside too, and it was so sad that Charley didn’t have his mum on the outside either, and not only that but he didn’t even have a dad.” (P. 238)

Ultimately, a person’s death isn’t knowable or able to be fully processed, and pretty much everyone in the book knows it, including most touchingly and eloquently Charley himself who struggles to comprehend how he can live with what he has done, even if it was a tragic accident, but that doesn’t stop them trying.

There is one chapter towards the end of the book when three unlikely people, all affected in tremendously life altering ways by Jean’s death end up in a pub, first awkwardly, then united by shared grief and loss and then by a temporary friendship which doesn’t survive the night but which means the world to them while it exists in their bubble of connectedness and remembrance.

It beautifully demonstrates how a person’s death ripples from those in the immediate family – Stan and Orion must live with Jean’s loss every single day, an inescapable fact of living – right through their network of friends and acquaintances, eventually touching the most unlikely of people.

Because of that great, inescapable truth and the way those connections help you deal with someone’s death (and yet not, all at the same time), Jean Harley Was Here, is a vitally important book and a wonderful, immensely affecting read that will have you crying, smiling and reminded once again of how the death of someone you love is a shared grief and the only way to properly understand and deal with it, and to remember their indelible presence in your life, is in those networks of interconnectedness that, life willing, persist long after the tragic moment of loss.

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