There is much to like about a well-executed set of short stories, and this is true of Jean Harley Was Here. While the book presents itself as a novel, it has more in common with Elizabeth Strout’s multi-narrator linked collection Olive Kitteridge (2008). This structural choice gives Heather Taylor Johnson enormous opportunity to explore the many aspects of grief.
Jean Harley hasn’t died – yet. Although the cover blurb refers to ‘the people [Jean] leaves behind’, her death remains a mere possibility until a third of the way through the book. There is a resignation to these early chapters: although Jean might wake up, her friends and family seem to regard her demise as inevitable and are going through the motions until it happens. We are introduced to her husband, Stan, and their son, Orion. We meet Jean’s best friends, two women who have only known one another in the context of Jean; Stan’s mother; and Charley, an ex-con who has set the whole fiasco in motion with his van.