Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell


The Distance Between Us is the third novel I’ve read by this author – it’s an old one too, published in 2004.  Like her last two novels, this one has characters dashing about, jumping on planes and trains and rushing off to places new, or old. Possibly this is because O’Farrell throws them into difficult situations where the past has a way of catching up with them.

Jake is caught up in a crush during a Hong Kong parade for Chinese New Year and injured, the girl he’s dating almost killed. As she lies in hospital and everyone expects her to die, Jake agrees to a deathbed marriage. Somehow she pulls through and the two return to England, where Jake has never lived, and the pressure to start married life together scares him into a search for his missing dad. All he’s got to go by is his name – Kildoune, near Aviemore, the place where his transient, hippy dad came from.

Stella also makes a dash for Scotland, panicked by the sight of a tall, ginger-haired man on a London bridge. She leaves a good job in radio, her flat, everything. She doesn’t even tell Nina her sister, who is like a twin, but not. Nina seems like a stalker, the way she is always checking up on her sister, phoning at work, at home, asking questions about what she’s up to, what her plans are. 

It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a book – the characters making life-changing decisions in the blink of an eye because of feelings of guilt, love or fear. Here’s what I liked about it:

  • O’Farrell keeps the pace ticking along nicely with very short scenes. We constantly switch between past Stella and present Stella; between Hong Kong Jake and searching-for-his-dad Jake; there are scenes from their childhoods as well as ones filling in the stories of their parents and grandparents. 
  • Somehow the story emerges in bits like jig-saw pieces, and even though O’Farrell seems to have a lot of balls in the air, it all ties in nicely at the end.
  • Jake and Stella are very convincing characters, likeable but also flawed. They could both grow up a bit – after all, they’re thirty and twenty-eight respectively, but it’s not so surprising they are the way they are when you learn their backstories.
  • Nina’s rather like an anti-hero, causing Stella no end of grief, calling at all hours, leaving threatening messages, but by the end of the book, she’s oddly appealing.
  • O’Farrell is a terrific writer, using a simple, immediate style that comes from the viewpoints of her characters. But she’s also great at conjuring up the mood of a moment with sensory descriptions. 
  • Like previous books I’ve read by O’Farrell, the originality of the storyline is brilliant. She is a whiz and throwing the unpredictable into ordinary lives and teasing out the possible repercussions, often triggering an emotional response in the reader – this reader anyway.

I loved this book and will be catching up on all of O’Farrell’s previous novels, probably quite soon. Because there’s nobody quite like her. Four and a half out of five from me.

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