Book review: The Spaces In Between

CAROLINE JONES seemed to have a gilded life. 

Caroline Jones

Constable, €29.50

The daughter of a relief co-ordinator for the World Food Programme, Jones lived in five countries — Ethiopia, Lesotho, Kenya, Sudan, and Pakistan — before moving to the UK to attend boarding school. 

After studying at Oxford University, she became a documentary-maker for the BBC.

But Jones was masking a debilitating mental illness. From the ages of 17 to 31, Jones suffered from bulimia. 

When anxiety and depression disoriented her, bingeing and vomiting offered stability. 

The Spaces In Between is Jones’s fearless, soul-baring memoir of that illness. 

Now 41, Jones interweaves her battle with bulimia with an astutely observed exploration of home, memory, and family inheritance.

Evoking her East African childhood with a painterly quality, Jones vividly recreates growing up in a loving family, in a place where glimpses of rhino and giraffe were as much a part of her trips to school as reciting her times tables. 

Yet, as an adult reflecting on her illness, Jones identifies the displacement involved in her father’s peripatetic work — and the disruption to her friendships — as a factor in her bulimia. 

Just as Jones began to feel self-conscious about her body at boarding school, a friend explained a secret way of eating what you wanted without gaining weight: after a meal, stick your fingers down your throat and make yourself sick.

An occasional habit in school became a daily routine in university. Jones unflinchingly draws us into the rituals of her bingeing. With an acid immediacy, Jones chronicles how a stressful Tuesday at work is soothed by a fantasy of “creamy-spongy-chocolatey-feasting-gorging”. 

She takes us along the supermarket aisles as she fills her basket with bars of chocolate, pastries, biscuits, and cakes, and then takes us into her flat, where she switches off her phone and turns up the TV, and eats relentlessly for three or four hours, before making herself sick over the toilet.

Exhausted, her hands shaking and her throat sore, Jones leans her forehead against the cool edge of the sink. 

“After 14 years of doing it like this,” she writes, “I know no other way of staying afloat”.

This acknowledgment forms a centrepiece of the book. From initially regarding her illness as a series of persistent, but random, interruptions to an outwardly normal life, Jones begins to recognise her reliance on bulimia: presenting herself as a confident, balanced woman in public requires siphoning the threat of disorder and excess through another channel.

The turning point is an eating-disorders therapist, who helps Jones disentangle the logic of her illness.

As Jones records in a notebook everything she eats, she dissects the thoughts that contribute to a binge and realises that it is typically a reaction to loneliness or disappointment.

Jones’s memoir is absorbing and should provide encouragement for readers struggling with any mental illness.

Told without self-pity or psychological jargon, The Spaces in Between moves inventively between phases of Jones’s life and is sprinkled with startling images that blend the panoramic (migrating wildebeest, who, seen from overhead, resemble water tributaries across the plain) with the intimate (the frayed, misshapen shoes of a Kenyan man on the Underground).

Recognising how she has changed since keeping a food diary, and tracking the feelings that swirl through her head during a day, Jones suggests that “[I]t makes me see what a powerful thing it is to simply pause, and think, and write.”


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