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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.

From Cop to Author: How Therapy Transformed Matt Johnson’s Life

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson edged toward the parapet of the high building and peered into the darkness. Below, on the concrete, was the body of a young girl who had fallen during a roof party. Dealing with death and injury are regular trials for police officers and in his twenty years as a London copper, Matt Johnson had seen more than his fair share of tragedy. 

But this day was to be even more challenging. As he looked down at the body he began experiencing a flashback to another traumatic incident: the shooting, in 1984, of a young female constable while on duty outside the Libyan Embassy in London. PC Yvonne Fletcher was Matt’s friend. He was with her in her final hours, driving her to the hospital where she later died. 

That experience left Matt with a range of torments which plagued him over the coming years: mood swings, irritability, disturbing dreams and sleep deprivation. But it was after his flashback nightmare on that rooftop, that day in 1999, that his situation became grievous. Driving home after the end of his shift he began shaking, sweating and feeling intense pain. Matt believed he was having a heart attack. He quickly found medical help. 

A Career Ends

The doctor’s diagnosis was unexpected: Matt had suffered an anxiety attack. And that was not all. The medic told him that he was suffering from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. 

That diagnosis put an end to Matt Johnson’s career in the police but opened a new path – towards writing. Now, twenty years later – after much counselling, hard work and a little luck – he is a successful author of a crime fiction series and also acts as a television script advisor on police procedures and methods.

His new career was triggered by a counsellor whose help Matt sought to cope with his PTSD. Writing therapy was a relatively new concept at the time but, under her guidance, Matt Johnson began writing about his swirling emotions and the effect of two decades dealing with murder, terrorism and shootings.

It was quite painful early on but what I learned was that writing about your experiences, rather than talking about them, involves a good deal more thought. Writing is 10, maybe 20 times more effective than talking. The more I wrote the better I got.

After months and multiple therapy sessions, there was an unexpected development. ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ the counsellor asked.

I just laughed. It was never on the agenda. I thought: ‘Who would want to read a book about my experiences when there are hundreds of other officers with similar experiences?’ At most it might be of interest to a researcher in a university.

New Career Begins

He forgot about the idea. Moved to Wales. Set up a boarding kennel. Got on with his life. And then a new idea began to take shape. Instead of writing an autobiography about the effects of stress on serving police officers, he could reach a much bigger audience if he wrote fiction that drew on his experiences.

One evening Matt sat at his computer and began transforming all the notes he’d made during therapy into a novel. It took almost three years to write Wicked Game, a book based on the experiences of a former SAS soldier, now policeman, called Robert Finlay.

Though rejected by several literary agents, the book became a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2015. One Easter weekend, it was downloaded 10,000 times; Finlay’s background in the army and intelligence services seeming to resonate strongly with members of the armed forces.

A Twist of Fate

But then came the lucky break that many budding authors dream will happen.

The Irish based author and journalist Antony Loveless was on a reporting assignment in Afghanistan. He started chatting to a RAF crewman whom he’d spotted sitting reading next to his Chinook helicopter.

Loveless was so interested by the crewman’s description of the book he had on his Kindle – Wicked Game – and the author’s history, that he bought a copy himself. And then Loveless recommended it to his own literary agent. A few weeks later Matt was taken on as a client by Watson-Little Ltd and began getting publishing offers.

Wicked Game, refreshed with the help of a professional editor, was published via Orenda Books in 2016. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, it had impressive endorsements from David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James, author of Inspector Roy Grace series. Two more Robert Finlay books followed: Deadly Game in 2017 and End Game in 2018, both to critical acclaim.

Fiction or Autobiography

What about the reaction from the people in whose worlds these books are set; Matt’s former colleagues in the army and police? No issues on that score: the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

It’s quite humbling sometimes because you know you are writing about something from your career background that people know very deeply and if you get it wrong, misrepresent their world, they can be very harsh in their judgement.

But I’ve had quite the opposite. Some people claim they recognise the people I’ve featured in the books. They’re wrong! Others have said they know the story is real. But they’re not … nor are these books autobiographical. I’ve just attempted to write in a way that comes across as authentic.

So authentic in fact that the master of spy thrillers, John Le Carré, wanted to meet Matt Johnson to discuss a plot device in his second novel Deadly Game.

It was surreal. There I was sitting in his house in Cornwall eating scones and jam and he asks me about the spy element in the book and where I got the story from. I said it was entirely made up. He wasn’t entirely persuaded. He said it was so close to a real story, one that really happened, that it was uncanny.

Matt Johnson’s clearly come a long way since that day in 1999 when he believed he was falling apart. Has writing solved the problems caused by his PTSD? The answer is an unequivocal no. PTSD, he says, isn’t a condition that’s cured, it’s one that you learn to manage.

Loud noises and crowded spaces can trigger a recurrence of his anxiety. So too can some speaking events if he strays too close to certain experiences. But his home amid the mountains of Wales, a place where he can walk his dogs and tend to his bees, offers him the tranquility that helps keep the symptoms at bay.

Writing has been critical to his salvation. He loves what he’s doing now even if at times he feels he’s still on uncertain ground.

I feel like I’m a novice surfer whose had a few lessons, paddelled out to sea, turned to face the shore and somehow picked up the perfect wave. I’m heading towards shore, grinning from ear to ear but I’m not very safe. At any moment I could crash and fall off. But I’m enjoying the moment.

What’s next on the horizon for Matt I ask? A film adaptation? A TV series? His lips are sealed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard both are in the wind….

Welsh authors

This conversation with Matt Johnson was part of the Cwtch Corner series on where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books. To read other interviews click here

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