Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 March 2023 from Orenda Books
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…
It’s now got to the point where I will read anything Doug Johnstone writes, such is his grasp of writing characters and relationships. The Space Between Us is a brilliant example of his art. Part Close Encounters, part Local Hero, this is a novel that begins in North Berwick and ends in Ullapool with a galaxy far, far away in between.
The Space Between Us works on so many levels. It is full of humanity. I suppose technically it is sci-fi, but it is also so much more. Doug excels in looking at the human race in relation to the rest of the universe, giving a real sense of perspective as to who we are and how our actions impact on each other, as well as making us think about how we treat each other.
A group of people suffer a mysterious striking down. Some die, but a few, Lennox, Heather and Ava, miraculously recover. And when they do, they find themselves coming together to try and understand what has happened to them. It all centres around a cephalopod they find washed up on a beach and whom they call Sandy.
They find they have a curious connection to this creature and a strong will to ensure that Sandy survives. That’s nowhere near as easy as it should be because Sandy seems in poor shape and this small group of people are not the only ones interested in the creature, but the others seem less concerned with Sandy’s welfare and more with capturing it for their own nefarious purposes.
Ewan is a journalist. He senses a big story behind this occurrence and is baffled by why these three should be stonewalling his questions. But the more he learns, the more he feels a connection to these people and to Sandy.
Doug Johnstone draws a profound and quiet connection between each character and Sandy and especially between Lennox and Sandy whose contact is very special. It is his ability to speak to big themes such as our place in the universe that makes this first contact novel so special. He does so by examining the relationships between each of these well drawn characters; showing us that they all have much more in common than they do differences. That’s at the core of this special book.
What binds these people is more than a remarkable recovery. Each is struggling with their own problems and all are suffering from a lack of real caring, human contact. These are scars that run deep and finding each other is only the start of their journey towards healing.
Our cephalopod, Sandy, is no different. They have found themselves homeless – forced from their home and looking for a safe place to live without fear. They are refugees and first we need to understand them, learn how to communicate with them and finally, find a way to live side by side with them in harmony.
It’s a lesson that applies to more than extra-terrestrial cephalopods. In understanding what Sandy needs, so we are helped to come to terms with our own need for compassionate connections. We understand that we require close contact in order to feel compassion and enjoy mutually supportive relationships and that showing love and support is a good start to healing ourselves as well as others.
The gap that is the space between us has to close if we are ever to realise the true potential of the human race.
Verdict: This book is terrific and is something of a masterpiece. It is compassionate, full of love and hope and yet provides a tense and adrenalin fuelled chase across Scotland. Johnstone provides a thought–provoking look at how we treat those who are different. In the process we fall in love with Sandy who helps us to realise that some themes are truly universal and the space between us needs to be closed if we are to survive and thrive.
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Doug Johnstone is the author of fourteen previous novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020) was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and three of his books, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade, and has been an arts journalist for over twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club, and has a PhD in nuclear physics. The Space between Us is Doug’s first foray into science fiction.