Slacker poet Arch, the protagonist of The Space Between Things, has knocked around Birmingham’s independent publishing scene for as long as Charlie Hill himself—he first appeared in 1999, when he narrated A Good Age in Tindal Street’s Hard Shoulder anthology. Given that both character and creator have a history of roughing it in low-quality accommodation (Hill recently described to the Birmingham Post how he spent the early Nineties in a series of cold-water squats), it’s reassuring that both have now found a proper home in Hill’s first published novel.
The Space Between Things opens at a house party thrown to celebrate the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. Here we find an apathetic, apolitical Arch resigned to merely getting by from day to day and indulging in meaningless hedonism as best he can. At this party he meets Vee, his ‘great yes’, a Croatian human rights activist taking a break from the conflict in Bosnia. They spend one night together before she returns to document the war. During this night she somehow shows Arch the error of his ways, suggesting that he’s a complacent waster who can make a difference if he wants to. By the time she comes back and they continue their relationship, Arch has transformed into a committed social revolutionary, high on the mobilisations of the illegal rave, new age traveller and road protest movements. This new sense of belief, a tack that at least gets Arch through the grind, grot and greyness of the early Major years, is supposed to bring him closer to Vee. But, as the republics of dance fold, the road protests are defeated and Arch’s cohorts squabble and become ridiculous, the previously fortifying relationship with Vee is revealed as illusionary. Giving up on Arch, she returns to the former Yugoslavia where she meets her death. This is to give nothing away. Her end is made explicit in the novel’s first paragraph, where Arch describes ‘a terrible pain because there is nothing else to discover and all there can be is loss.’
Told as a stripped-back, sometimes very witty monologue, The Space Between Things is a likeable though overly procedural novel. Vee is too shadowy and underpowered a character throughout to believably inspire Arch; she says little of rhetorical force on the crucial night they meet and overall seems a McGuffin the plot needs to get Arch on the road to Twyford Down. In some ways she’s less palpable than the minor female characters, like a hippy-chick called Sorrell whose bed hopping eventually causes strife between the revolutionaries of Moseley. It seems a shame that this strand of the novel, where the personal and political intertwine, is less realized when Hill writes with verve about a Moseley scene ‘balls deep, fanny high in fiercely burning beauty with kids who were strutty, slouchy, edgy, pouty, narkylouche.’ As the novel is such a reliable chronicler of the early Nineties counter-culture and a country ‘idling in a lay-by, uninspired, complacent, untouchable,’ it’s a pity that the significance of its romance seems so local in what becomes more a survey of the decade’s alternative scene than a tragic love story.
The Space Between Things is a novel about the Nineties and it could have been written in the Nineties. It very much comes out from under the overcoat of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a novel it explicitly references. Ultimately, though, this is no bad thing. Revisiting this period of recent English history is both timely and saddening.