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The Jump by Doug Johnstone: Tense Portrait of Grief

Cover of The Jump by Doug Johnstone

The Jump is categorised as a thriller but I’d describe it as more of a study of grief; in particular the overwhelming, all-absorbing suffering resulting from the inexplicable death of a child. 

Johnstone takes us into the world of a middle-aged mother whose teenage son jumped to his death from the Forth Road Bridge six months earlier.  Now every day she re-lives his last moments, repeatedly watching CCTV footage of his final moments and standing on the spot where he climbed over the railing and threw himself into the freezing, swirling esturial waters of the Forth 150 feet below.

Burning Questions

Every moment of every day, Ellie Sharp’s brain is occupied with two questions: Why did Logan kill himself?  Why couldn’t I stop him? 

She couldn’t prevent her son’s death. But one day, she spots another teenage boy poised precariously on the wrong side of the barrier, “holding onto the railing behind his back, looking down at the water”. With carefully selected words and disclosure of her own experience, she gains the boy’s trust and coaxes him back to safety.

Her discovery that this distraught young lad is drenched in blood, marks the beginning of an entanglement in his life and that of his dysfunctional family. 

Sam reminds her so much of her dead son. If Ellie can save him, she might atone for the guilt she feels over his death. Some of her consequent actions are rash and irrational but, of course we have to remember that Ellie is so subsumed by grief she is not fully capable of thinking coherently.

The Jump builds in tension from this point on with the customary twists and turns and unexpected developments you’d expect in a thriller. This element of the book didn’t especially hold my attention however. I was far more interested in Ellie’s mental state and the effect overwhelming grief has on her and her husband.

Scars of Grief

Doug Johnstone’s portrayal of Ellie’s obsessive behaviour as a way of dealing with grief, is intensely emotional. This is a woman whose entire existence now revolves around her son and what happened a few months earlier. She never eats, endlessly checks Logan’s Facebook page and carries the scars of her grief in tattoos she’s acquired since his death. Only when she swims in the Forth, fighting against the strong currents to the point of exhaustion, does she experience any relief from grief.

Her husband Ben is similarly obsessed. Where Ellie turns to intense physical activity to escape from reality, he plunges into the world of conspiracy theories. Every day it seems he finds a new line of enquiry, his “investigations” fuelled by discussions with other suicide conspiracy theorists.

So deeply ensnared are they in their own worlds of grief, that they barely acknowledge each other’s existence let alone talk about their son. It takes another near tragedy to show them a way back, if not to happiness then at least to togetherness.

The Jump does edge close to an obsessive interest in Ellie’s state of mind. I can fully appreciate that some readers would be turned off by the repetitive nature of passages that detail her daily routine. But that wasn’t my reaction; after all, if you’re going to make your main character an obsessive woman, then repetitiveness has to figure largely in the depiction otherwise it simply doesn’t ring true.

That question of authenticity was really the key to my appreciation of The Jump. It does have the preposterous elements usually found in a thriller but it also has a high quota of realism. There were times I questioned Ellie’s actions (she sails a bit close to the wind in her relationship with Sam) but I never questioned the depth of her despair.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone: End Notes

About the Author: Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and writer in residence at the University of Strathclyde. Since 1999 he has worked as a freelance arts journalist, primarily covering music and literature. His twelfth novel, The Big Chill, was published by Orenda Books in August 2020.

About the book: The Jump, was published by Faber & Faber in August 2015. It was Johnstone’s seventh novel.

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