#BlogTour – Doug Johnstone- The Space Between Us @doug_johnstone @orendabooks

Lennox is a troubled teenager with no family. Ava is eight months pregnant and fleeing her abusive husband. Heather is a grieving mother and cancer sufferer. They don’t know each other, but when a meteor streaks over Edinburgh, all three suffer instant, catastrophic strokes, only to wake up the following day in hospital, miraculously recovered. When news reaches them of an octopus-like creature washed up on the shore near where the meteor came to earth, Lennox senses that some extra-terrestrial force is at play. With the help of Ava, Heather and a journalist, Ewan, he rescues the creature they call ‘Sandy’ and goes on the run. But they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the alien … close behind are Ava’s husband, the police and a government unit who wants to capture the creature, at all costs. And Sandy’s arrival may have implications beyond anything anyone could imagine…

Doug Johnstone has probably been better known of late for the excellent Skelf series, which sees a multi-generational family of women dealing with the trials and tribulations of running a funeral home and private investigation agency, and also navigating the knotty issues that life in general presents to them. However, The Space Between Us is an entirely different proposition and takes his writing in a whole new direction, but never stinting on his wonderful ability to really get beneath the skin of his characters, and expose the frailties and triumphs of the human spirit in equal measure. Add into the mix the arrival of a strange, telepathic and empathetic cephalopod , who binds these characters even more closely together, and we become as fascinated and invested in this turn of the events as they do. As one character observes,

” He felt dizzy at the scale of it, too much to think about. How an individual from an ecosystem a billion kilometres away had come into their lives just like that. What it could lead to.” 

What indeed.

As a long time admirer of E. M. Forster, stay with me here, I have always held an affection for his central tenet of ‘only connect’, the principle being that we should all endeavour to bridge the gap between one another regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality or class, and that true connection is the nirvana of the relationship between us all. This mantra of ‘only connect’ kept buzzing around in my head when I was reading this, and also the way that Johnstone expands this theme so the connection is made between human beings and an extra-terrestrial across both earth and space- a connection of worlds beyond our own understanding of our own. One character ponders how we can truly develop communication and connection across different species, and bridge the divide that separates us, but as the book shows us, not all things are impossible….

The three main characters are connected by virtue of their own personal tragedies, adversity, rootlessness or sense of being slightly outside the norms of society. Lennox is a teenager in the care system, Heather, a woman grappling with the twin evils of grief and illness, and Ava, pregnant and seeking an escape from a coercive and abusive relationship. What transpires from a random event at the beginning of the book comes to define and connect them as people, strengthening the bond between them, and allowing them all to draw on a previously hidden strength of character and resolve to protect both themselves, and this alien being who links them, affectionately dubbed Sandy.

In all the years of reading and reviewing Johnstone’s books, I have always been hugely impressed by his exemplary characterisation, not just as a whole, but with his female characters in particular, and The Space Between Us is no exception. His portrayal of the grief and frustration of Heather, both at the loss of her child, and the disease that is slowly destroying her is so moving and powerfully affecting, as is her growing fearlessness, embracing her own sense of carpe diem. As she, Lennox and Ava unite in their mission to keep Sandy- a being with a collective of consciousnesses- safe from harm, and to explore their connection to their human protectors, she grows in purpose and strength of character. Ava, looking to escape an abusive husband and protect her unborn child, harbours a wealth of previously untapped determination that gets so undermined and eroded when locked in a coercive relationship. As someone who has experienced this, I was incredibly impressed with the way Johnstone depicted the helplessness, self-doubt and stress that Ava experiences so accurately, and with such sensitivity. Likewise, Lennox struck a real chord, drawing on the reader’s empathy for the challenges he has faced as a mixed-race teenager, sucked into the care system with no familial support or sense of belonging to draw on. Little wonder that he makes the strongest connection to Sandy, who senses this vulnerability in Lennox, and draws him into a world way beyond our understanding, but a world that enriches and strengthens Lennox too. The characterisation throughout is impeccable from the three main protagonists, to the hapless journalist Ewan who tags along on their quest. Despite the personal travails of all, Johnstone always relieves the darkness with well placed moments of humour and self deprecation on the behalf of his characters too. This relieves the emotional heft of the plot, and the increasingly dangerous situation they find themselves in, as sinister forces pursue them throughout the book.

As reluctant as I am to make any reference to modern advertising and the molecular make up of whatever shampoo or skin product they’re plugging, as they say in the adverts…now here’s the science… This is a sciencey (is that a word? It is now) book and as Johnstone takes us on an enlightening and expansive journey through worlds beyond our own, I thought my mind would probably collapse in on itself with the mental effort. But, and I say this emphatically, no it most certainly didn’t. It was absolutely fascinating, and the thought that all this could exist outside of our own dimension is a challenging, but hugely important, provocation to our arrogant view of the supremacy of humankind. I think it’s reductive to pigeonhole this book as genre specific as the theories and possibilities that Johnstone presents , alongside the pitch perfect human story, with a pace so redolent of his crime writing, all work absolutely symbiotically. I was moved, entertained and educated in equal measure, so what could possibly be better than that? Johnstone has consistently pushed the boundaries of his writing over the course of his career, and The Space Between Us only proves further his unique creativity and flexibility as a writer. A wonderful book which will definitely act as a springboard to reading more sciencey (definitely a word now) fiction, and absolutely highly recommended. 🐙


Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series, which has been optioned for TV. In 2021,The Big Chill, the second in the series, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. Black Hearts (Book four), will be published in 2022. Several of his books have been best sellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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