7 June 2019

Review - The Space Between Time by Charlie Laidlaw

The Space Between Time
Charlie Laidlaw
Accent Press, 20 June 2019
PB, 436pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Charlie Laidlaw's new novel The Space Between Time. I'm very grateful to the publisher for a free  advance copy of the book and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour.

The Space Between Time is a vivid and poignant coming-of-age story set in Edinburgh and the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, with a similar milieu to parts of Laidlaw's previous book, The Things We Learn When We're Dead (which I reviewed here).

Unlike Things We Learn, which was firmly science fictional, Space Between Time remains - I was going to say "Earthbound", but perhaps "realist" might be more accurate, because this book does have its mind in the heavens. Emma Maria Rossini is recounting her lifestory, which is dominated by two men: her father Paul and her grandfather Alberto. The former is an A-list Hollywood actor, the latter a professor of theoretical physics who's proposed a world-shaking theory concerning dark matter, dark energy and higher dimensions. Laidlaw uses Emma's relationship with her grandfather and her understanding of his theory to counterpoint the story, heading each chapter with a mathematical expression. Alberto's theory acts as a kind of extended metaphor, describing a world where what may be most important is what's missing, what's invisible. For Emma, this is her father, whose arrivals and departures from the family's middle class Edinburgh flat (and later, plush North Berwick mansion) rather resembles an erratic planetary body.

Emma admits towards the end of the story that she's an unreliable narrator. Not only does she reserve the right to edit her life for interest or to make it more fun, but she is, for much of this book, retelling events that took place when she was much younger. We can't therefore be sure whether what she's describing - her reactions, feelings and understanding - is what she experienced at the time, or whether it's informed by later, more adult knowledge. And in particular, by the way things turned out - this is a story of loss and grief, if unspoken grief, and of coming to terms with a world that, resolutely, isn't fair. That's illustrated by the young Emma's perceptions of her parents' marriage, or her relationship with her mother, Cat, who is beautiful but, increasingly, troubled by her husband's absences.

To get the most from this book you will have to be patient with the story moving backwards and forwards a lot. Emma's approach (as written by Laidlaw) is more thematic than sequential, moving from one related thought to another, sometimes nesting them several deep and explaining the various bits of her life to which they're relevant. I don't mean that to sound offputting - it's done very cleverly, so much so that often I didn't realise what a tour we'd been on till the narrative landed back in the moment. It does, though, make the book difficult to précis and I'm going to exercise a reviewer's privilege and not try to do that any more than i already have.

I have to say I loved this book. Emma herself is well realised, with a command of the moment and a vein of dark humour that remains with (almost) however bad things get, in fact so much so that - I came to realise - it was carefully masking just how serious some situations were, so that when a crisis hits it often seems unheralded - although the signs are always there. Again there is the question here of a conscious rewriting, an editing, of Emma's story by her later self. The divide means that in this book, time isn't (really) real and different events coexist.

The book also has a real dash of humour - for example in Emma's relationship with Knox the cat, who she imagines to be a Presbyterian animal, sternly disapproving of the antics of her and her student flatmates, or in her observations of institutions or, even amidst the tension, or her parents' self-absorption.

There is a real sense here of the countryside and coastline around North Berwick, the sea which Emma feels she is a part of and a deft touch for the social geography of Edinburgh (I used to live there, I recognise the distinctions Laidlaw draws, even down to the differences between one side or another of the same street).

Above all, though, this is a story with a real sense of heart and compassion. It's a story about things said and especially, unsaid and about how it can be too late to set things right - but also, how that concept of linear time carrying the past away is wrong and it is never too late. We can't alter the past but we can, perhaps, edit how it affects the present.

The blogtour goes on - it's all in the present, you can revisit the previous posts if you wish! - see the poster below for details.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or from Hive which supports local bookshops, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or from Amazon. And other places besides.

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