Australian arts jobs, news, industry commentary, career advice, reviews & data


What's On

Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

Erich Mayer

This book opens with a moving and subtle account of an accident.
Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

 Cover image Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson. Image via The University Of Queensland Press (UPQ).

In the original 1895 Punch cartoon, the curate assures the bishop that part of his egg is excellent. So is much of this novel by Heather Taylor Johnson, for ‘excellent’ is not too strong a word for the moving way Johnson describes the grieving for Jean Harley – a lost wife, a lost friend, a lost mother, a lost daughter.

The book opens with a moving and subtle account of an accident:

 …police lights blurry in the early morning rain; cars resting off to the side of a black road, crushing the wet grass, almost lost, almost confused; two police officers; an ambulance; a burly man … a hysterical woman … witches hats guarding the tragedy; the banged-up bicycle, the crumpled cyclist being attended to.

The ‘crumpled cyclist’ is Jean Harley and the reader gets to know her husband Stan, her son Orion (who is named after the constellation that played a significant part in Jean and Stan’s relationship) and her many friends and relations, and shares in their grief and memories.

A series of flashbacks reveal the loves and life of Jean Harley and the twist of circumstances that led to the accident. As you meet Jean Harley’s friends and family you get to know them better and better and come to understand their reactions to tragedy and how they cope, or fail to cope, with the loss of a dear one. Johnson’s realistic descriptions of the minutiae of the daily lives of her characters add an extra dimension to her storytelling.

Eventually those that Jean Harley has left behind adjust to a normal life, each in her or his way. That is, if life can ever be normal for those who have suffered a great loss.

Where the story falters slightly is in the backstory and depiction of the reformed ex-convict, Charley, who played a part in the accident. Somehow this gentle giant of a man is less than real. This is unfortunate as a great deal of the novel is devoted to him. Charley’s personal grief and his feelings about the effect of the accident on Jean Harley’s family are less than fully convincing. Undoubtedly, accidents of this nature are traumatic for all those involved – one need only look at what happens to train drivers following fatalities that are none of their doing. Yet as a former convict and as a decent caring human being, Charley’s reaction to the accident is less than credible.

Jean Harley’s loveable dog, Digger, helps – as dogs do – in Stan and Orion’s grief and recovery. However, the short chapter that anthropomorphises Digger and gives us his thoughts could well have been omitted.

With all that said, this book explores, in-depth and with feeling, the effects on a wide range of relationships when a person central to one’s life dies. It does that very well and in the process describes their behaviour and their emotions in language at time bordering on the poetic.

All in all, then – this book is a bit of a curate’s egg.


Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5

Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

Category: Fiction,Latest Titles
Release Date: 27/02/2017
Pages: 248
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5954 8

Publisher: The University Of Queensland Press, UPQ

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog