Fiction Reviews

The Space Between Us

(2023) Doug Johnstone, Orenda Books, £9.99, pbk, 276pp, ISBN 978-1-914-585-44-9


Doug Johnstone is perhaps better known for his crime novels, of which he’s published thirteen (he also plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, just to be clear where he’s coming from). This, his latest offering, certainly has a similar structure and plot but with the added shape-shifting twist of a First Contact.

The story begins with a teenage boy, Lennox, resident of an Edinburgh children’s home, being confronted by a gang of school-yard bullies in a park at night. Proceedings are interrupted by a ‘fiery throb’ of blue-green light passing overhead, accompanied by a loud hissing sound, which causes all concerned to fall to the ground unconscious. The next chapter (and each is titled with the names of the principal characters) focuses on Ava, a young, pregnant woman tip-toeing out of the house to escape the coercive control of her well-connected husband. She gets away in the car and manages to make it out to the coast before she too is felled by the mysterious light in the sky. Then we shift to the perspective of Heather, a middle-aged woman, divorced, who lost her daughter to cancer and now has been diagnosed with a brain tumour herself. And so, with echoes of the sad case of Virginia Woolf, she has resolved to walk into the sea, her pockets weighed down with stones. In this case, although she too sees the light overhead, it’s when she sinks beneath the waves that she encounters something strange but also oddly comforting before passing out.

All three are brought together in a hospital ward where they are told that they’ve suffered some kind of stroke from which they have miraculously recovered, although others were not so lucky. And all three are somehow struck by the images on the TV news of a large octopus-like creature washed up on the shore. Determined to find out what’s going on, Lennox first saves Ava from her husband and then heads to the beach, where the two of them bump into Heather again. Ducking under the tape that had been placed around the creature, Lennox touches one of it’s tentacles and receives a powerful telepathic request for help before blacking out again.

Into this already rich mix, Johnstone adds Ewan, a newspaper reporter on the downward slope of his career. Sensing a real story here, despite the protestations of his editor, Ewan begins an investigation into the reports of the mysterious light, together with the unexplained strokes and the odd-looking cephalopod that washed ashore. Joining several dots, he realises that Ava, Heather and Lennox are somehow connected but also that they need his help. Usefully, when it comes to propelling the plot forward, Ewan has an old contact in the police who provides helpful updates, after Ava’s abusive husband accuses Lennox of kidnapping her. And this is the part of the book that worked best for me, as our intrepid trio rescue ‘Sandy’ the cephalopod – who of course is an extra-terrestrial – with Ewan tagging along, the four of them pursued by not only the local constabulary, but also agents from an unknown government agency who are not averse to a spot of brutal interrogation and general violence. The ‘feel’ is very much that of a locally rooted crime story as the group travel from car to campervan to truck, up past Inverness, through the Highlands, to Ullapool, managing to skip past the police but with the British version of ‘Men in Black’ hot on their heels. The descriptions of lochs and hills and isolated valleys are evocative and give a strong sense of place and the shifting relationships between the principal trio, plus Ewan, are nicely handled.

What I found less engaging were the telepathic interactions with Sandy which I felt were, to put it bluntly, rather soppy. Perhaps we all need a good dose of feel-good optimism in these rather grim times but I just found it implausible that a creature who had travelled so far and endured so much would be quite so willing to spread such an undiluted message of peace and love and universal healing.

And this combination of action-packed crime drama and passages reminiscent of film scenes from The Abyss persists through to the conclusion, where ‘it all kicks off’ as they say. Amidst the carnage, Sandy’s origins and their reason for coming to Earth are revealed but the final words, ‘What now, Sandy?’ seem like a declaration of intent when it comes to the possibility of a sequel. I’m afraid, however, that as much as I did enjoy this book, which is definitely very readable, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to a series.

Steven French


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