Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna


Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 282 pages; 2009.

At what point do you decide to abandon a book? I ask, because I came very close to abandoning this one by Irish writer John MacKenna. I struggled with the first 54 pages, not quite believing the dialogue (too verbose, too artificial) nor the characters (too one-dimensional, too false). But something convinced me to keep reading on, because who knows, maybe it would get better. And, thankfully, it did.

Reviewing this book proves somewhat problematic, however, because the plot has several key revelations which are best discovered by simply reading the book rather than reading this review. (And, whatever you do, don’t read the review or “product description” on Amazon, because they’re riddled with spoilers. I found this out the hard way, but even though I discovered what was going to happen, The Space Between Us still left me reeling at the end, part in shock, part in awe.)

The basic premise of the novel goes something like this.

A young architect opens the door to two police officers (or guards, as they are known in Ireland) who inform him that his wife, a solicitor, has been killed in a car crash. His reaction is not what one would expect. Instead of being overwhelmed with grief he’s overwhelmed by relief — their marriage had been floundering for a long time but neither party had had the courage to end it. Now, left alone to raise his two-year-old daughter, our unnamed narrator has been given a second chance to start afresh. When a married friend, Kate, confesses she’s in love with him, there seems only one road to take…

The book then jumps ahead 17 years and we discover the narrator living in the same house, but alone. His daughter, Jane, is studying classical music at university, but comes home to spend her weekends with him and their dog, the impossibly named Rostropovich. The story then follows our narrator for a year, and in that year, we find him being tested on very many levels.

“You need to stop letting things happen to you and make them happen for you,” his neighbour berates him one day.

“You need to be more passionate about life. And I’m not talking about shagging me. I’m talking about you and this way you have of sitting back and letting life wash over you. I’ve known you for twenty years and you’ve allowed yourself to just exist, you’ve lived without passion.”

This seems to mirror something Beth, his late wife, once told him when they were on holiday in Amsterdam almost 20 years earlier. She thought a permanent move to the Netherlands would be the impetus needed to kick-start his career to the next level, “the move that gives you the grand design”. But he’s content designing houses in small-town Ireland and the idea doesn’t interest him.

“I think you’re afraid of the world,” Beth said. I knew by her eyes she was serious. “I think you feel safe being the medium-sized fish in a tiny pond. But what happens if another fish appears in that pond?”

In essence this is a novel about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices. It’s also very much about unrequited love, death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters. And I defy anyone not to read this and be incredibly moved by the gentle prose and the emotional story that unfolds but most of all by the powerhouse ending that turns everything else on its head. This book isn’t what I expected, it’s far more shocking and disturbing than I could have possibly envisaged, and I rather suspect anyone who decides to give it a try will concur.

Oh, and if anyone does read this book, please come back and let me know: I’m dying to have a proper discussion about it, as it throws up so many interesting topics and issues.

6 thoughts on “‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna”

  1. It’s published by a small press, so maybe it’s not available in Oz. You could try the Book Depository which has free shipping worldwide. Or, better still, wait until you visit Dublin… I’m sure you could easily pick it up at Hodges Figgis.


  2. Spoiler alert! Don’t read the post if you havent read the book yet…
    Unlike you, I enjoyed this book from the beginning, I enjoyed the language for a start and also loved the discussions between the husband and wife, I thought a bit of the spice died when she did.
    I also rather suspected the ending, it was hinted at early on when the daughter wants to talk to her father about “us”? And winked at him? Most daughters don’t relate to the fathers in that way. I was stunned by a reviewer who was so startled by the ending that he said he wanted to throw the book against the wall! For me, it read like the ultimate result of a mind that will only live in a world of his own making, an architect was a particulary apt career for the main character, or a writer maybe! What is slightly disturbing is how natural and erotic the last chapter is… part of the reader is thinking, oh this is beautifully written, the other part is going, this is so wrong! And as a mother, I closed the book thinking the characters wife would be reeling in her grave. I thought it was a wonderful book – unless you read for comfort!


  3. I remember thinking very early on that the relationship between father and daughter was a bit suspicious. But I put it out of my mind because the father seemed a bit soft on Kate, the married friend/neighbour. But when all is revealed near the end I almost fell off my chair! I think it’s a real testament to MacKenna’s talent that he could write an entire novel but not spell anything out until the end.


  4. John, you had me until the end. I felt that the ending eroticized one of humanity’s biggest taboos. I didn’t think that you needed to resort to shock value to make the book profound.


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