The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

I am absolutely delighted to finally share my thoughts on The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone. I was very fortunate to receive a very early copy of this book and read it over the Christmas break. My thanks to Orenda Books for trusting me with an early read, and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invite. Here’s what the book is all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 16 March 2023
Publisher: Orenda Books

About the Book

When three people suffer strokes after seeing dazzling lights over Edinburgh, then awake completely recovered, they’re convinced their ordeal is connected to the alien creature discovered on a nearby beach… an adrenaline-soaked, deeply humane, life-affirming first-contact novel from one of Scotland’s most revered authors…

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…

My Thoughts

I do not read sci-fi. Just putting it out there before I am inundated with review requests. It’s not my preferred genre and whilst I have a very scientific mind, it’s just not a genre I’ve ever been engaged by. If there was one author I would be willing to make an exception for, then it is Doug Johnstone. I love his writing style and I know that he can be trusted to deliver a book which goes far beyond what the blurb may suggest.

This is absolutely the case with The Space Between Us which, whilst having it’s roots – or perhaps tentacles – in science-fiction, goes far beyond a simple first contact story with a being from another planet, into a story which is an exquisite look at human nature, a need to find our place in life, and the trials and harsh tribulations we endure on our journey. Yes, Sandy – the alien life form in question – is an intrinsic part of this story, the reason that binds three very different people in one united quest, but they are not all this story is about. They are a conduit, a channel through which our focus and attention flies while we contemplate the much bigger picture. Loss, loneliness, and domestic violence all feature and inform the story combining to create a novel which I didn’t want to end.

The story begins as our three main protagonists face very different twists in their fate. Lennox is a teenager living in care, faced with the wrath of some local bullies. Heavily pregnant Eva is trying to find a way to escape an abusive marriage. Heather is deep in grief, mourning the loss of her daughter and her own failing health. All of them have one thing in common – they are all outside when a mysterious light passes over Edinburgh, one which causes people to black out and to suffer from debilitating, if not fatal, strokes. The three make a miraculous recovery, and, drawn together by their experience, set out to find out just why they thrived where others did not. This brings them face to tentacle with ‘Sandy’, an octopus style creature which has washed up on a nearby shore.

For me, the wonderful characters that Doug Johnstone has developed are what really drew me into the story. I could really feel Lennox’s defiance and his need to feel like he belongs. The bond he formed with Sandy, that closeness that surpasses anything that Ava or Heather feel, really enthralled me. The communication between them, the understanding, is reminiscent of the bond between a certain short legged, waddling alien with an obscenely long finger from a well loved 80’s movie, and his new friend Ell-ee-ot, but there is so much more to Sandy, a real cognisance which helps to develop our understanding of what is happening. It is a beautiful bond.

As for Ava, her journey is as much emotional as it is a literal. Breaking free from a marriage marred by coercive control and a constant threat of violence, and reconnecting with family she though lost is truly moving, portrayed in a way which creates as much anger as it does sympathy. As for Heather, she created a mixture of emotions. At times she seems strong and fully in control, and yet the sense of loss emanates from her and her vulnerability and sadness is always there, just below the surface. Doug Johnstone is a master at manipulating our emotions and he does a brilliant job here. I felt myself willing them to succeed, not only in their quest to help Sandy, but in their personal journey. And the literal journey is fraught with danger, as they are persued not only by Ava’s husband but by people who want to take Sandy for their own fortunes.

Sandy is an amazingly well imagined creature. I was actually really drawn to them, so much so I really think we need a line in Sandy plushies to accompany the book. But their journey is far more than just a bid to return home, They too are looking for a place to belong, a safe haven from violence which is very reminiscent of scenes far less galactic and much closer to home. There is a socio-political statement wrapped up in this book, subtle but effective. Its about displacement through invasion, the search for safe haven and, more importantly, finding a way to communicate even when the barriers are far more substantial than the lack of a Sandy-Scottish Duolingo course.

I wish I could adequately convey how much I loved this book. I know I’ve made a horlicks of it so far. But if you are looking for beautifully lyrical writing, a heartwarming, fast paced, often tense look at friendships that surpass all boundaries, an exploration of the very basic need for connection and a place to belong, then this is the book for you. As I said before, I don’t read Sci-Fi, but I wouldn’t hesitate for one minute to recommend this book. It’s divine.

Only one thing left to say really. It’s getting one of these:

About the Author

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.

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