Although “What Jonah Knew” is Barbara Graham’s first novel, she is a seasoned writer. That experience is ably reflected in the narrative — we are invested in the story from the first page (I could not stop reading this book). We know something bad happens to Henry Bird, the young musician whose mother Helen has a bakery and whose girlfriend is expecting their baby, but we don’t know exactly what. His mother is bereft at his disappearance and knows he met with foul play. He also has a loyal dog, Charlie, who becomes a hero in his own right. And in the alternative narrative, we meet Jonah, the title character, who at a very young age seems bothered by things that don’t affect other children. His mother Lucie observes him becoming terrorized by fireworks and loud noises. He also occasionally references his “other mother” and “his” dog.
The connections between Lucie and Helen are many. They end up in the same small town—Helen lives there and runs the bakery; Lucie loves to visit the town on weekends. And there are other coincidental meetings. When Lucie, Jonah’s mother, arranges for her family to spend a summer at Aurora Falls, the quiet town outside New York City, Jonah begins to share more about his feelings of having another family. When he meets Helen and her dog, Charlie, who was originally Henry’s dog, there is an immediate connection between the boy and the dog. In fact, while it might not have seemed strange for a boy and dog to connect, Graham cleverly lets us know that Charlie doesn’t get along with males, even young boys. But when he sees Jonah, he loves him immediately, without hesitation. That feeling is mutual. And then there’s the fact that Jonah explains his dog stuffed animal, Jolly, which he got as a toddler, was really named for this dog Charlie at a time when Jonah couldn’t pronounce his r’s, which was how the name Charlie became the stuffed toy’s name, Jolly.
Both Lucie and Helen are perplexed by how Jonah knows so much about Henry and his life. Graham builds the story from several points of view, even occasionally from Jonah’s first person narrative. We understand Lucie’s fears of the strangeness that is happening to Jonah, and we feel Helen’s sorrow at the loss of her much loved son. In fact, Helen and Henry had fled an abusive situation when Henry was young, and Jonah’s apparent knowledge of that situation lends credence to his eventual claim that Helen was his other mother.
For those who have wondered about reincarnation and about the stories of youngsters who have uncanny talents that might be vestiges from past lives, this book is an exploration into what those phenomena could look like. Of course, there’s also the mystery of who killed Henry. We don’t know the culprit, but we do wonder if Jonah would recognize the killer from his past life. By the time the story builds to the climax, Graham has gotten us to care about all the characters, including Henry’s girlfriend and his daughter. The ending will make many cry, especially because of the beauty of the circle of life and the fact that what we often want and need most is closure with those we love. This is a beautiful book that will tug at heartstrings while reaffirming the everlasting nature of love.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by publisher, Harper Paperbacks, for review purposes.