“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Normally, I’d say this is the most unusual book I’ve read in quite a while, but in fact it’s been a brilliant month for Orenda Books as both their March releases have been quirky, original and quietly brilliant. It’s no secret that I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series and it’s mix of philosophy, astronomy, family and crime. This stand alone novel has some of the same attributes and a whole lot more besides. One night a strange occurrence in the Scottish night sky brings together strangers Ava, Lennox and Heather. Several people see the strange light and sparks in the air and all have severe cerebral haemorrhagic strokes. These are the most rare type of strokes and usually they’re fatal. Ava, Lennox and Heather are the only people to wake up the next day completely unscathed. Each one has their problems: Heather had been wading into the water with stones in her pockets after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis but is saved by something in the water. Lennox is a lonely teenager, bouncing round children’s homes and is being set upon by bullies when he sees the lights in the sky and the stroke hits. Ava is pregnant and desperate to get away from husband Mike, a vile abuser obsessed with power and control. Meanwhile, on the beach lies a strange octopus or giant squid, sprawled on the sand and guarded by police. This cephalopod appeared as these unusual strokes happened and no one knows what to do with it. It’s not the usual octopus as it only has five tentacles and it has strange rippling colours under it’s surface. Police officer Nina is on the case and reporter Ewan is determined to find out the link between the creature and the three disparate people who band together to rescue the creature and have now gone on the run.
None of the three fugitives can understand why the extraterrestrial life form has chosen them. At first their link with Lennox seems most powerful. Despite his background of being let down by others, Lennox is very open to the creature and is the one to name them Sandy. He has even allowed them to form a telepathic connection by leaving a sort of organic hearing aid in his ear, turning them into ‘Lennox-Sandy-Partial’. It’s hard for Lennox to explain Sandy, he immediately uses ‘they’ as Sandy’s pronoun, not because of a dual gender but because they’re a dual person. Lennox thinks Sandy may be part of a larger whole or has a hive mind, one that can link with humans should they wish. For Lennox, being part of a larger whole must sound wonderful and grounding in a way he’s never experienced before.
‘It was weird, having spent his life in the care system, he didn’t have a fucking clue who he really was. The policy preventing you finding out about your birth parents out about your birth parents until you were eighteen was strict, and even then, the chaotic system of records meant you might never find out. Shit just got lost. So he’d drifted rudderless through his early life, with no sense of community or belonging anywhere.’
Ava is the next to connect with Sandy, mainly because she trusts him to tell her whether her unborn baby is okay. Ava is also alone in the sense that she alone knows the truth about her life with husband Michael. Ava was already running when she encountered Sandy, running from Michael and his attempts to destroy her. Michael is the archetypal abuser, who started out by separating her from friends and family then used techniques like gaslighting so she would question herself, even her own sanity. Then the physical and the sexual violence began. Even Ava’s mother has abandoned her, thinking Michael is a lovely man who simply has his wife’s best interests at heart. Ava wants to leave before her baby is born and her decision to flee with Sandy up to the north of Scotland is partly because she hopes Michael won’t find her there. These are the first people to meet Ava and accept her for who she is and they immediately believe her account about her marriage.
The last to connect with Sandy is Heather and that’s because she’s deliberately closed herself off to others. Heather has a terminal brain tumour, something she’s been keeping from everyone including her new friends. She has immediately taken on the role of Mum, looking after all of them and even preparing to deliver Ava’s baby. When they approach Heather’s ex-husband for help, the others are surprised, but Heather assures them he is one of life’s good guys. She is clearly genuinely pleased to see him. However, seeing him with a new wife and starting a family is particularly painful. A terrible tragedy forced this couple apart and seeing him brings it flooding back. Can Sandy approach her now, when she’s at her most vulnerable and what help can he offer? All three are fascinating characters and as a group they seem unbeatable. It’s their very connection that gives them strength. However, they are being pursued; by the police, the journalist called Ewan and a shadowy group of men in black who seem capable of anything if it gets them closer to Sandy.
As always Doug Johnstone is capable of taking several unusual, even improbable scenarios but writing about them in such a clever way you don’t question it. I never once stopped to think it seemed incredible. Similarly, our three main characters never pause or worry they’re doing the wrong thing. There’s one incidence where Lennox stops to question what’s happening:
‘There weren’t many Google hits for ‘telepathic octopus’. Shocker. Lennox looked up from his phone and stared at Sandy. He felt like a different person to the one who walked through the park two days ago. Now he was wanted for murder and kidnapping, sitting in a cheesy brown van with an old woman and a pregnant teacher, and getting psychic messages from a telepathic octopus.’
Usually a story like this would be set in a fantasy or dystopian future, but we’re definitely in the here and now. The settings are so ordinary. I could imagine pulling into a viewing point near Loch Ness and meeting Ava, Lennox and Heather when they’ve broken down and are waiting for a lift. Yet, within moments Lennox has been absorbed by Sandy and is diving through the water like a seal, breathing easily and feeling completely at home. These sequences are fantastical, stunningly beautiful and transcendent. He makes us want to be there experiencing it all. I think the key is that despite the strangeness of a tentacled cephalopod shivering with excitement at the thought of swimming in a loch we’re learning from Sandy. He’s showing us how to love life more, to find the wonder of things, to connect more, grow together and to experience everything:
“Suddenly his host shot upward towards one of the bigger cracks in the ice. A jet stream flowed from a volcano on the seabed, like a fountain through the sea to the opening in the ice. They joined it and shot through the ice shelf into space, surrounded by millions of particles of water and ice. He turned and looked at Saturn, huge and orange in the sky. He realised they were in one of the rings, they were the ring […] floating in space, swaying and drifting.”
As always with Doug’s writing there are literary and philosophical references throughout and I was delighted to find one of my favourite thoughts from Susan Sontag who wrote about illness and disability and their surrounding metaphors. Within the medical model of illness, particularly with cancer and other auto-immune illnesses, the metaphors of battle are commonly used as Heather points out:
“She hated the military terminology that people used around cancer: ‘She lost her brave battle with cancer.’ The cancer was part of you, you created it from nothing, so that language meant you were fighting yourself. Turning everything into a battlefield was a masculine, wrong-headed way of looking at things.”
She hates the assumption that if the cancer has spread or become terminal it’s because she is weak and hasn’t battled hard enough. Sometimes the words we choose are very important.
There are allusions to Alice Through the Looking Glass, to Virginia Woolf in Heather’s method of suicide – wading into water with stones in her pockets. There’s also a hint of Howard’s End in Sandy’s ability to connect with his fellow cephalopods and other species. It should make us rethink how we connect with one another. Howard’s End presents people of different classes who normally wouldn’t associate with each other, but people are really all the same. We should connect with all sorts of people in different age groups, abilities, religions and races. Here Lennox truly understands this:
‘It didn’t make sense to think of himself as Lennox anymore, he was a compound of a million things – bacteria in his gut, microscopic bugs in his hair, Xander’s body passing through his own, Sandy inside his neurons. It finally made physical sense, the idea that Sandy was plural. We all are. And the human idea of being singular, apart, alone, was a ridiculous and lonely way of looking at life.”
In fact what our different characters show us is how strong we can be, if we work together, especially characters with very different skills and personalities. Being part of a whole makes us stronger. Despite the danger and tension of their quest to reach Ullapool where everyone converges on the harbour, I found the ending so positive. Sandy asks us to rethink our lives, let others in and perhaps look at the world in a different way. Why do we think of our planet as ‘Earth’ when the largest proportion of our globe is ocean? We look at everything through the filter of our own class, education, experience and privilege. So, we should take time to view things through someone else’s filter. This was a fascinating, funny and uplifting literary journey that challenges us to move closer and reduce the space between us. In other words ‘only connect’.
Published 2nd March 2023 by Orenda Books
Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series, which has been optioned for TV. In 2021,The Big Chill, the second in the series, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. Black Hearts (Book four), will be published in 2022. Several of his books have been best sellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.