There is always a sense of excitement when reading an author’s debut novel, especially when there are already ripples of positivity on social media. On some occasions, the excitement turns out to be unjustified, but that could certainly not be said about Katya Balen’s first book, The Space We’re In.
At its heart, it is a story about a young family and their relationships. Frank is ten and increasingly feels that his life revolves around Max, his younger brother, who has severe autism. Mum has put her life on hold to care for Max and Dad is trying to balance the conflicting pressures caused by work and family. The book begins with a countdown to Max starting school, a situation which threatens to disrupt the family’s precarious balance even further. As they eventually begin to adapt to their new routine, a tragic event occurs, which means that life can never again be the same.
One of the most striking and powerful aspects of this story is the absolute authenticity of the narrator, Frank. His initial inability to empathise with his situation, his bewilderment at unfolding events and his struggle to accept his brother all ring true. Author Katya Balen has spent her professional life working with autistic children, as well as completing an MPhil about the impact that stories can have on their behaviour, and her depth of insight shines through in the writing.
Laura Carlin’s beautifully understated illustrations provide the book with another layer of engagement. They subtly interact with the text and help enrich our understanding of the evolving relationships between the characters. The ever-changing layout of the text also provides further insight into Max’s state of mind.
Obvious comparisons can be made with Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott and The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson. The Space We’re In is equally as thoughtful, engaging and well written. There are some books that I recommend people read, and there are some books that I insist people read. The Space We’re In indisputably belongs in the second category.
You may be interested in our podcast with illustrator, Laura Carlin.
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