Susan Rooke, The Space Between: The Prophecy of the Faeries. Self-published, 2017. Pp. 435. ASIN B074Q4Y6PQ. $16.95.Reviewed by Psyche Z. Ready
I struggled with two elements of this book, and they were enough to overshadow the book’s strengths. The first is an unexpected, dramatic shift in tone. The first two-thirds of the story is Mellis, a young human abducted to a mysterious and faerie-like land where she Alice-like tries to figure out where she is, what’s going on, and how to get home. It’s a compelling narrative. However, during the final third of the story, the narrative takes a very sudden turn to gruesome body-horror. I was not at all prepared for that as a reader, and it was shocking, confusing, and gross. I don’t think it spoils anything to say that you will read a detailed description of what it feels like to move through the digestive sphincters of a demon. This is not to discredit horror or gore as genres; I simply believe readers will not be prepared for those themes in this book, and some may be disturbed. Narratively, it feels jarring.
Second, The Space Between is premised on some pretty insidious ableism. In this faerie-land, the residents, or “Penitents,” are human-like, but they all have physical disabilities in some way including limps, missing limbs, skin discoloration, extra body parts, etc. An example of the way these individuals are described: “Disfigurement was everywhere: humps, bulges, twisted or missing limbs and worse. It was an unending sea of the misshapen and the malformed.” They are described with disgust, horror, and pity. Mellis feels “revulsion” toward the “ugly” and “disfigured” people. As if that weren’t enough, the reader learns that these “penitents” are in their disabled bodies as a punishment for past transgressions, and they are miserable and seeking a way to get out of these “ugly” bodies. A central premise in this novel is that disabled bodies are disgusting and deserve pity; ugliness is equated with badness, beauty with goodness. There is no excuse for such reductive, superficial, harmful ableism in a book published today, and I hope the author considers not only how disabled readers might feel reading these words, but also the stereotypes and stigma she is perpetuating with this sort of language and plot.
In all, although her first novel is overshadowed by some mistakes, Rooke is a strong and imaginative writer.