Will Burns reviews ‘Thin Places’, an astounding and much-anticipated debut from Kerri ní Dochartaigh.
Sometimes it is possible for a book not just to speak of or to its times, but to somehow anticipate them; to project its concerns, its wisdom — through some aspect of that strange relationship between the reader and the text — onto experiences the author was yet to know. Could not, in fact, know. Thin Places has just such an uncanny quality. Its narrative ends at the closing of 2019, and yet, reading it in a year as fraught and dark as this last one, it’s a book that feels no less relevant.
The book begins with a description of author Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s childhood in Derry. Born into a mixed Protestant and Catholic family, and housed in a Protestant estate, the family are subsequently bombed out of their house — ní Dochartaigh’s primal family home — and the traumatic effect of that night haunts and shapes her life in the years that follow, as it in turn shapes her prose throughout the book. There is a sense of fixation with certain words, a sense of the author’s inability to shake them off — words like grief, sadness, trauma, dark, black, the ‘thin places’ of the book’s title. The voice, then, slowly, achieves something like invocation, something like the quality of song or prayer. The repetition becomes poetic; there are animals who occur and reoccur. A crow stalks ní Dochartaigh’s dreams and imagination, and there is a fox that she cannot stop recalling from memory.
Ní Dochartaigh aims for something beyond argument, though the form is essayistic, asking the reader instead to think along with the prose, to feel for sense as it arrives, or indeed, as it eludes her. We are with her at home in that first house, and through the subsequent moves and step-fathers and father figures, out of the family home to Edinburgh, Bristol, and finally back to Derry. And we are with her homeless, lost, always on the move, remote from her friends and asking herself why. We are with her as she thinks herself back through motive and cause, as she relives the violent memories of her childhood, abusive friendships and relationships, and throughout as she invites us to share her rather slantwise vision of the natural world that seems always to hover — or perhaps, to borrow the language of her beloved moths, to flit — in and out of her view. None of this is presented in anything as simple as plain-spoken prose: it’s always shrouded in poetry; in a strange feeling that the book is being written as you read it, the feelings raw and current, the vocabulary obsessive, the images shamanistic. There is a sense of the temporal thrust of the narrative always just slipping from the reader’s grasp, of time and experience forming as flashbacks, or cut-aways, masterfully recreating the nature of memory’s mutability, its capacity for playing tricks and overlaying images, sights, sounds over one another in ways that suggest connection and pattern, that dislocate as well as fix us in place.
As might be expected from someone who has suffered at the hands of both sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarianism, the book avoids overly-simplistic political judgements, though it manages simultaneously to articulate, particularly in the first section, an anger at British oppression, at the colonial impulse at the heart of the problem. For ní Dochartaigh, however, that schism becomes the impetus, running parallel to an ever-growing awareness of the non-human world of moths, birds, trees, to learn the Irish language, to re-acquire what she perceives to be the lost words for the things of the world. The conflation of this loss with a primal sense of grief betrays the extent to which language has come to exercise its particular power over the author, how it has become a locus for her loss and subsequent re-building, and throughout she uses names and words as access points to history, mythology, her own past. This blending of the biological, the geographical, the historical and the personal might sound like much contemporary writing, but the prose here is so unique, so singular, that it’s impossible to constrain the book within anything so facile as fashion or contemporary literary trends. The qualities of ní Dochartaigh’s writing, the tactile turns of phrase, the circling around certain words and images, the always surprising music of the sentences becomes its own ‘thin place’, operating as an interface between the world of the author’s lived reality and the reader’s felt equivalent, a barely-there separation that makes for a profoundly moving, uneasy experience. The book seems intent on rejecting comfortable, received notions of what constitutes craft — ní Dochartaigh, for instance, has no compunction in telling, and telling it straight come to that, as if the cold-eyed directness of her gaze, and the writing it has engendered, is beyond the mere considerations of ‘art’ and its easy consolations. This is prose that has more to do with the real, grisly, stuff of life than with rhetoric or artifice; it is truly honest, and carries off the page the genuine, deep melancholy of the author, and so too, reading it in the dog days of 2020, of our present historical moment.
It is that clear eye that seems so uniquely contemporary, resisting wistfulness or an easy exultance, certainly looking beyond what might be called ‘nature wellness’ or anything like it. Ní Dochartaigh’s is an eye that is both rigorous and ruthless, whether describing an encounter with whooper swans, analysing the harm that humans inflict upon one another and the world around them, or, and perhaps most importantly, excavating her own flaws and damaging behaviour. This is not an easy read, it is not a cosy adjunct to Countryfile, and it is not a book to be invoked as an accessory to a kind of aspirational outdoorsy lifestyle. It is tough going, as it must be, because the life has been, and because without any of the author’s grief, any of that cyclical violence and abandonment and disappointment and the escalating sense of self-loathing and desperation, those bright moments wouldn’t shine half as hard. The fox and the night sky, the moths and butterflies, the Gaelic words and etymologies, the sumptuous sentences that pile up on the pages. In the end, this is a book about how light and darkness inevitably insist upon one another; it is a book which becomes its own proof against the hopelessness it describes — and it is, ultimately, a true affirmation of life, in all its horror and beauty.
‘Thin Places’ will be published by Canongate on 28 January. Pre-order your copy here.