I prefer to get weird with my reading sometimes, and often that can be hard when there are so many releases. Especially when those releases fit into nicely worn grooves, adding to a genre or subgenre I feel immersed in. I am obviously more comfortable reading science fiction, especially if it’s a space opera, near future dystopia, or climate fiction because those are my wheel houses. I am also completely okay with relaying my experiences in weird arenas that I have no background in, especially when a book speaks to me on so many levels that it’s hard to distill for a digestible review. However, sometimes I decide to take a big bite into something that needs digestion, needs time to think through. That’s where Jamie Yourdon’s The Space Between Two Deaths comes in. It’s a short novel that takes its time dealing with the subject of death, and how it might impact one’s life in ancient Sumeria.
The Space Between Two Deaths follows the lives and deaths surrounding a small family with a farm in ancient Sumeria. When a nearby city-state is sacked and pillaged, a crevasse opens up on the land that Meshara and her husband, Temen, cultivate. Too many deaths caused a rupture in the underworld, and it happens to be on their land. Temen can’t help but explore this opening. He steals the tail feather of a crow so that it may guide him to the bowels of the underworld in search of his father. Meshara, and their daughter Ziz, are frustrated with his absence especially when the landlord arrives to check in on things. When the landlord is pulled into the opening himself by a tiger from the depths, Meshara and Ziz have to flee their land to escape punishment. After being taken in by a generous and wealthy woman, will Meshara and Ziz find a new life, or will they be forced to be slaves?
I think I fell into a trap with this book. I felt a compulsion to read it, not because of the merits of the book, but because I had decided I needed something very different. The first thirty percent of the story is a blur to me. Sure, events stick out, plot occurs and I know the general direction of the book. But the flavor of it is missing, as if I wasn’t paying attention strongly enough. It wasn’t until I was eighty pages in when things started to click.
The story itself feels like a modern rendition of an old fable. I don’t know much about ancient Sumeria, but the story feels like a tale from that time and place. It’s alien in some respects, more brutal, and grounded in a reality I don’t quite understand. Some reviewers mention this is supposed to be a horror book, and while it certainly has those trappings, it feels too mythological to be “horror.” Does it explore some of the same psychological tendencies that horror often does? Yes, but there is a deftness to the way those aspects were handled that made me think more in the vein of ancient myths. The horror isn’t the point, it’s just so deeply entwined within their lives.
Yourdon’s writing is saturated with this feeling of being between two worlds. It’s not quite a fever dream, but it’s close. It’s more like when you’re waking up from a dream in the middle of the night. You can clearly delineate the fact that you’re in a bed and the crow you were having a pleasant conversation with is not real. But when you walk down the dark hallway to get a glass of water, the shadows have no definition and a dark bird flies by the window, you start to question. Yourdon cleverly slips into this state in his writing, having different characters interact with the world in different ways. Meshara is firmly rooted in the workings of the human world, trying to find a way to continue living the life she has always led. Temen is anchored in the underworld, accepting incredibly dark and absurd things until that’s just how he sees the world. And Ziz, at ten years old, is in between, never knowing what is a story and what is reality. It’s just kind of a muddle of both, neither truly distinct from the other and it’s fascinating.
The plot itself revolves mostly around these two women and how their lives are shackled by the laws of ancient Sumeria. Obviously, to them this is the way that life is, and they have to navigate the world with desires of just a little bit more. It is striking that neither of their wants feels too out of place for the rules that Yourdon is setting. Again, I know very little about ancient Sumeria, but it feels realistic for my general understanding of the ancient world and how it viewed/treated women. I wouldn’t say it’s gripping, but it is a compelling exploration of their lives, and how they have to play the game. Yourdon introduces a few snags that ramps the tension, and he’s generally successful at making you care about how their lives turn out.
The further away from reading it, the more I find myself thinking about this book. I think I took it too lightly in the beginning to fully enjoy it and may end up rereading it. I do want to make a quick warning: this is a brutal book. There are depictions of gore, some child abuse, and just general uneasy subject material. I’m usually not fazed by these things, so they fit fairly naturally to me within the context of the story. I also buried the lead, but Temen’s story is told through the perspective of the crow who had his tail feather stolen, which was just delightful. He talks, but can only use one syllable words to convey meaning and it’s delightful even if it’s the gorier sections of the book. If you want to step outside your comfort zone, The Space Between Two Deaths is a good way to do it.
Rating: The Space Between Two Deaths 7.5/10