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Kathryn Davis: The Thin Place
This is one of those novels where, to describe it, it appears a quite ordinary, mundane novel, when, in fact, it is really a superb novel, whose strength lies not in its plot but in the writing and the idea(s) behind it. On the face of it, it tells of Varennes, a small New England town, not far from the Canadian border. We meet many of the inhabitants and follow their activities. They live fairly normal lives, pretty much as you would expect. They get married, have children, fight and send their children to the local school, where they are taught by local teachers. They go to church. They have affairs. One woman, who runs the local bindery, is reading the diary of a woman who lived there a hundred years ago and she, too, seems to have had a fairly conventional existence, though she never had children. In the old people’s home, one woman has reached her ninety-third birthday and seems still sound in mind, spending her time listening to an audiobook of The Forsyte Saga, while another woman is annoyed that her son, has been banned from the home. Piet, son of the ninety-three year old woman, goes out running and thinks of his four ex-wives (with whom he remains on good terms), of his girlfriend, Chloe, and how he might drop Chloe and go for someone else, possibly Billie, his fellow churchwarden. Even in his sixties, he always gets on with women. At the church, they are trying out new walkie-talkies for the wardens though it is not entirely clear why.
There are two other sets of characters, other than the humans, however, which give us something of a different focus. The first set is the animals. These are not Disneyfied nor anthropomorphised – far from it -but animals doing what animals do. There are the three domestic dogs, well looked after and from good homes who set off together and go and kill some chickens belonging to the Bliss family, without any sense of guilt. There are the beavers who build dams, as beavers do. There is the bear who goes foraging in dustbins for food, as bears do. There are cats, a sparrow, a fisher-cat. In the far North, the animals have souls and their souls are reasonable, Davis comments. Davis skilfully describes these as characters in their own right, without making them seem anything other than animals being animals. This is, in part, part of a plea for environmental responsibility but also trying to show us the spiritual oneness of the world.
The title of this book is The Thin Place, which apparently refers to a traditional legend about the thin barrier between the real, physical world and the spiritual world. This is certainly not a ghost story nor, indeed, a story about the spiritual world but there is no doubt that religion, both the everyday religion of the Christian church and religion on a higher plane are a feature. But there is also something else going on which Davis does not stress, indeed is very subtle about. We see this early on when three pubescent girls find Mr Banner, a local resident, lying on the lake shore. He is seemingly dead. Indeed, maybe he was. However, by the time adults are called, he has revived, possibly at the hands of Mees, one of the girls. Little is made of this, so it is unclear what Mees’s role was, if any. However, later on, when the dogs attack the chickens, the owner shoots one of the dogs and then phones up the dog’s owner, asking her to take her dog’s body away, which she does. She leaves it wrapped up in a blanket in the basement. When she returns, the dog, after ministrations from Sunny, another of the girls, has revived and is up and about, albeit bleeding from the wound. Was it merely stunned or did Sunny revive it from the dead?
The third set of characters is probably just one character – Nature. Davis shows us nature in all its forms. The local wild flowers are lovingly (though not sentimentally) described. We have already seen the animals acting as animals, not humans. But nature can be threatening to humans. We see this with the animals – the dogs, all domesticated, all well fed, nevertheless are happy to go off and kill chickens. The beavers build dams, despite the best efforts of the human to trap the beavers and destroy the dams. But nature has another side. Davis describes to us not just the biological/botanical side of nature but also the geological. She shows us how Varennes was created by glaciation and how its form now is due to processes that took millions of years. But she also shows us that nature remains a force to be reckoned with, as we see a storm coming in and then pouring down on Varennes, affecting people directly, with wet roads and fallen trees but also indirectly by affecting their mood. Nature adores breaking things, she casually comments, as the storm destroys plants and creates new streams. Two hundred years ago, the lake suddenly disappeared down a hole.
Death is key to this book. The people in the home are waiting for death and, in some cases, do die. They also think about their loved ones who are already dead. Death is natural but also violent, as animals are killed by humans and other animals, humans have accidents (we get more than one in this book) and people are killed by other people. Davis goes even further. Though the duration of the plot of this novel is relatively short (if we discount the references to the geological events of the past), Davis gives us a summing up of the lives of most of the main characters after the events of the novel, invariably telling us how and when they died. She certainly does not sentimentalise death. There is no life after death and, apart from a few fond memories of loved one who have died, not much memorialising of the dead. Death is. It is cruel, often abrupt, but also necessary and inevitable.
When I started reading this book, my initial reaction was that it was going nowhere. Only when I got into it, did I realise that I was reading something very special, often (though certainly not always) understated, a book that deals with the larger than life issues, while remaining very much rooted in everyday life. Davis clearly wants to send us a message about the importance of the natural world and that we neglect it very much at our own peril. She also wants to paint a portrait of a small, remote town, showing the different people getting on with their lives in their own way, yet subject to two factors – sudden intrusion from the outside and the whole range of things that happen, from accidents to death, from coincidences to fate, that can change our lives without warning. Spirituality, as evidenced both in religion but also in its broader sense, has a role to play. Above all, it is the forces of nature that have brought us into being and shaped the way we live, who we are and what we are, that form this book.
First published 2006 by Little Brown