You get widows and orphans, but why isn’t there a word for a parent who has lost a child? It’s a question that I pose right at the start of my latest novel, The Jump, and the only answer I can think of is that it’s just too horrible a thing to contemplate.
The idea of parents losing a child to suicide has been sitting in the back of my mind for ages, gnawing away at me. It’s not an easy subject matter to tackle in a novel, perhaps, but eventually the voices in the back of my mind grew so loud that I just had to try to write about it. So that’s how The Jump came about.
I often get a little bit annoyed when crime novels write about suicide because, more often than not, they turn out not to be about suicide at all. What seems like suicide in the first instance is usually revealed to be a murder, maybe the victim of a serial killer. But what if there was no such resolution? That’s what I wanted to write about, a suicide that was really suicide, and all the emptiness and loneliness and pain and damage that goes along with that awful act.
The Jump is not about trying to find out who the murderer is, it’s about trying to come to terms with loss, and trying to grab a second chance at family life, no matter how fucked up that might be. And in The Jump, without giving too much away, it’s pretty fucked up.
Ellie deals with her grief by making a daily pilgrimage up to the Forth Road Bridge where her son killed himself. At the start of the book, she encounters another teenage boy about to do the same thing, and she talks him down. But when she takes him back to her house, virtually catatonic, she discovers he has blood on him, blood that isn’t his.
And so she is swept into this new boy’s mess of a life, all the while doing her best to protect what’s left of her family and what amounts to a new family.
And, inevitably, it’s an unholy mess. There are abused children and bad police, murder and body disposal, alcohol and pills, and a sunken boat. Throughout it all the road and rail bridges that span the Firth of Forth loom over everything. The book is set entirely in South Queensferry, the small coastal town that hunkers between the bridges. The bridges create a specific, eerie atmosphere, a sense of always being looked down upon, the constant traffic permanently heading elsewhere. It’s a beautiful place, but the mouth of the river as it spills into the North Sea is a forbidding place, and nature and the elements play a large part in what happens as the book reaches its climax.
Ultimately, The Jump asks questions about morality and survival. Is it OK to do bad things for a greater good? In a grieving world where all certainty is gone, what will you do to protect the innocent? Hopefully, readers of The Jump will appreciate the way I’ve asked the questions, and will maybe even come up with their own answers.
The Jump by Doug Johnstone is out on 6th August (£12.99, Faber & Faber). More information about Doug Johnstone and his work can be found on his blog. You can also follow him from Twitter @doug_johnstone