Review: The Space Between Us

Doug Johnstone – The Space Between Us (Blog Tour)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £9.99. Also available in ebook and audio book. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. You can also buy the book directly from the publisher at:

First, the official blurb: 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 no secret that I’m a huge fan of Doug Johnstone’s writing – to be honest, if he brought out a retelling of the phone book I’d buy it. But is this a crime novel? Well, there are crimes, cops and consequences in it… Is it a sci-fi novel? Well, there’s alien life in it… What you really need to know: It’s a Doug Johnstone novel, thus it is a must-read.

He dipped his toes in the water (sorry) of science fiction with Fault Lines, set in an alternate Edinburgh where Arthur’s Seat is far from dormant, and gave us a physical shifting of the ground beneath his characters’ feet even as he ripped the psychological rug from underneath them. But as I said in my review at the time, it was the people that made the heart of the story. 

And so it is too in The Space Between Us. Five years on from Fault Lines – in which his writing hit new heights with Breakers and the Skelfs series – and Johnstone has dived fully into science fiction with this first contact novel, but he hasn’t abandoned what makes his writing so compelling: his character work. 

We open with outsiders, outcasts, pain and fear. Lennox, who has grown up in care, is a target for school bullies. Walking home one night across a park he’s about to be attacked by a group of boys. Across the city, pregnant Ava creeps out of the house to escape her husband, Michael. Heather, walking on Yellowcraig Beach, has a terminal brain tumour diagnosis and troubled thoughts.

All see a flash of light in the sky and collapse where they are; all three wake up in the same hospital ward. Overnight, a whopping 16 people have had strokes, all of them were outdoors at the time. But while one of the bullies lies in the corner of the ward, alive but barely able to move, Lennox, Ava and Heather have recovered completely.

As they are coming to terms with this bizarre situation, they hear a huge cephalopod has been found on Yellowcraig Beach. All three are drawn to it, as they are to each other. Lennox calls the creature “Sandy”, but it’s not a single entity, more part of a hive mind – when he touches Sandy, he finds out they are telepathic, with a delightful “speech” pattern: <Partial-identifier Sandy> <New partial Sandy-Lennox>. They want to reconnect, they tell Lennox – with themselves. 

The trio sneak Sandy off the beach and out of the reaches of officialdom. That choice will lead the group across large swathes of Scotland and into all kinds of trouble – from Ava’s husband, from the police, from a mysterious chap in a sharp suit with hulking minders, and from a journalist, Ewan, who starts out following the story but ends up engulfed by it.

The human characters are as nuanced as ever – Johnstone creates wonderful whole, flawed people – but in creating Sandy he has excelled himself. The colour-changing body, tentacles and telepathy are simply but masterfully described; the empathy and wisdom on the inside shown in scene after scene that moved this reader to laughter and tears, often within the space of a few lines (get a hanky ready). Sandy is both supremely intelligent in ways our trio can’t grasp and also wonderfully childlike – there are some lovely scenes with Lennox in particular as he and Sandy move towards understanding each other, and the pure joy of the pair’s journeys under water are exhilarating. 

The final chapters of this escape-cum-road trip are as urgent and action-packed as you could want, but given a different feel as they are interspersed with Sandy’s increasing joy at the prospect of reconnecting – when they finally say <We are home> it’s just perfect. There’s an overdue reckoning or two, dawning realisations, generosity, love and, yes, hope. It is hugely uplifting. New life. New home. New starts all round. (New book series??)

Johnstone could not be more timely with this novel about refugees – literal illegal aliens – arriving secretly on a shoreline far from their home. But there are no soapboxes here, just a gentle exploration of finding your place in the world, and recognising that connection is the first step towards healing wounds old and new. Sandy is reunited with their tribe. Ava reconnects with her own self. Heather comes back to the world. Lennox finds a family – in fact, he finds two: Heather and Ava, and Sandy.

It takes an alien creature to show us what it means to be human; it takes looking for Earth from a distant moon of Saturn to give us perspective on life. It takes a particular kind of writer to tell us all these things by creating a giant octopus whose tentacles literal and metaphorical move between the characters and bring them together when they most need it.

I’m firmly <New partial Sandy-Louise> and I suspect Sandy’s tentacles will have a grip on my heart for a very long time.

Doug Johnstone is the author of 14 previous novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020) was longlisted for the Theakston 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 Novel 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 more than 20 years. Doug is also a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and 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.

Doug will be launching his book at the Portobello Bookshop, Edinburgh on Wednesday 29 March, for more information on booking tickets (in person or for the livestream), check out their website:

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @doug_johnstone
Find his website at:

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the reviews on the blog tour!

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