I’ve spoken elsewhere of Doug Johnstone’s excellent The Dead Beat, the story of one young woman’s unique first day at work on an Edinburgh newspaper. Johnstone continues this exceptional run of form in his new book The Jump, a novel which (if I were in the habit of categorising books) sits firmly in the ‘domestic noir’ category. But as with all generalisations this one masks not only the quality of Johnstone’s writing (which is exceptional), but also the strong emotional core that this book has. Johnstone brings a heart-breaking honesty to a difficult subject, something which is rare in fiction in general, let alone any particular genre.
In The Jump Johnstone’s protagonist is Ellie, a woman struggling to come to terms with the suicide of her teenage son Logan. Ellie and her husband Ben live in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, from which Logan jumped; and the structure now acts as a constant reminder of that irrevocable act, literally over-shadowing them. Johnstone powerfully describes Ellie’s overwhelming grief and the actions that stem from it. Whilst he movingly describes the immediate results of Logan’s suicide Johnstone also very wisely doesn’t try to explain it away. Such a shocking event is inexplicable, and as a parent I can only wonder how I would cope. For Ellie and Ben, Logan’s death is now just a fact – as real and as solid as the bridge itself or the wide expanse of water that it crosses.
Ellie cannot leave the bridge alone. She picks away at it like a scab and returns daily to walk on it and look at the water far below. It is during one of these visits that Ellie encounters Sam, another troubled young man also seemingly ready to jump. Ellie senses a chance at redemption, some kind of atonement for the guilt she feels over Logan’s death. Managing to talk Sam down Ellie takes him home. When she later visits his house Ellie makes a shocking discovery, and through it becomes increasingly drawn towards a family haunted by some very dark secrets.
In this (as in his other books) Johnstone does uncertainty very well, and this was one of many aspects of the book that I enjoyed. Part of the plot turns on an accusation of child abuse, which at first seems water-tight. However, when the abuser is confronted the situation becomes much more complex, and as the reader I was left wondering whether everything was as neat as it first appeared. Johnstone does something similar in The Dead Beat – his protagonist, Martha Fluke, is undergoing electro-shock treatment to help her cope with a debilitating depression. This affects her both physically and mentally, and again there are points where the reader wonders just how reliable a witness Martha really is – did what she think happened really take place? Or is something more complex at work here? In The Jump Ellie’s mind is clouded by grief, but the implications are very much the same.
There’s a steady, tightening inevitability to The Jump, one that will keep pulling you through the book to the last page. But more than that, the story also gives Ellie and Ben a chance at redemption, and it’s this emotional depth that keeps you reading, and will ensure the story stays with you after closing the book. I’m already looking forward both to what Johnstone writes next and acquiring those parts of his back catalogue that I’ve yet to read.
Doug Johnstone’s website is at https://dougjohnstone.wordpress.com/. My thanks also to Sophie Portas at Faber & Faber for an advance copy of The Jump.