It is quite difficult to define this novel. The protagonist, Jethro, is on a search for meaning; trying to make sense of his world; trying to figure out how to live in this world. The consequences of various random events have left him feeling hopeless, vulnerable and immobilized. He has no money and very few possessions; if it were not for Sam Ngcaba, who befriends him and almost takes him over he would be worse off.
After an assault followed by a burglary in which his face was ironed, he starts to see a psychiatrist, Dr Chatwin, (though he behaves more like a psychologist than a psychiatrist) who is seeing him pro bono. These sessions are all quite frustrating as Jethro talks in riddles and seems deliberately obfuscatory. He can also be very amusing especially when he downplays his rather bizarre experiences and speaks of them in a very matter of fact way. He was listening to Miles Davis when the burglary took place so at first he thought ‘burglary with Miles Davis is always going to be a fairly chilled affair”, but the burglars do become aggressive so he wishes that he could get the music back on as a “trumpet looking for a conversation always calms people down”. This sort of statement typifies his approach to life but it does not ring true.
Jethro likes to make sweeping, philosophical statements about mankind’s foibles and faults as if he is an authority who occupies the moral high ground. In fact, he is a drop-out without a meaningful occupation and little prospect of a successful future. Sam arranged a job for him in which he inhabits a wire giraffe and visits Soweto to hand out free condoms and spread the message of A, B, C to prevent Aids. He also serves at tables in a steakhouse.
Jethro starts writing stories for the psychiatrist to read before his session starts; the psychiatrist questions him regarding the underlying meaning but not much is illuminated. It is a little confusing as initially the reader believes these to be part of the narrative and cannot figure out the reason for their insertion. One of the stories is in the form of a fable of sorts, another describes how Sam is the connective tissue in his life. Sam is a very likeable character, as seen through Jethro’s eyes. He even tries to persuade a friend to have sex with Jethro to cheer him up. When she refused, Jethro noticed that Sam “stared into her vast cleavage as if someone else more understanding lived down there”. These unexpected observations are really amusing.
Jethro believes that nothing in life can be undone. The reason for this emerges during therapy; essentially he blames himself for a random decision that led to unforeseen consequences. Now he will not even cross out a line in his story, because changing it does not mean he can un-think it. This leads him to believe that asking random questions might provide him with answers. He decides to make a sign and stands at a corner of the road where people seeking employment gather. The sign says ‘Poet’. At first I thought this an intriguing notion but it merely results in havoc as he does not know how to respond to the attention he receives.
On one of his forays into Soweto, he meets a young girl of 11 who “changes his life forever”. Her name is Matsotso Cecilia Dumisa and she has a still centre, a calm wisdom and she makes Jethro feel light. She is the most real, convincing character in the novel. She diagnoses his existential angst as being due to not being able to find the right space in which to live; that is “the space between the space between’ of the title. Even by the end of the novel it was never quite clear exactly how she changed his life.
Jethro becomes involved in quite a few far-fetched situations, continues to philosophize ad nauseum and communicate with his rather passive and ineffectual psychiatrist. The cleverness and pseudo-intellectualism is contrived and the over-riding point is unclear. Perhaps the cover, which I love, says it all; the silhouette of a man between square brackets. I ploughed my way through to the end but did not really enjoy it.