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Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

The Thin Place

The Thin Place
Kathryn Davis
Little Brown (2006)
ISBN 0316735043

Review by Martha G. Wiseman


Buy now from Amazon! How do you inhabit the thin place? You may already be there, you may be close, and perhaps it inhabits you. It is a point and a space. (Think angels on the head of a pin, for instance—a point that stretches toward infinite capacity.) It is a narrow borderland that opens out into wide vistas of space and time and falls off darkly and endlessly. It is a border, a margin that contracts and expands. It is a kind of "shimmering verge," in the poet Molly Peacock's phrase. It is a theatrical scrim through which we can sometimes dimly, sometimes more clearly, make out the actors moving on and moving off. It is a semiporous membrane between the living and the dead, as well as between the living and the living, between one species and another, between alterations in the cosmos and the daily doings of a New England town. It is indeed all of these things in Kathryn Davis's new novel, The Thin Place.

Davis moves with witty grace between the larger mysteries (perhaps, the book suggests, they are all large, moment by seemingly mundane moment) and the everyday petty routines and anomalies of the citizens of Varennes, just south of the Canadian border. It is a place we would think of as sheltered and protected, on the verge of pastoral; but it is open to all the slings and arrows in its way. It is a thin, rich place itself.

In the story, a preadolescent girl can coax seemingly dead creatures, human and otherwise, through that thin membrane back into the living world, and we are not exactly startled, so smoothly does Davis blend the miraculous with the jostlings of the girl and her two friends. She also mixes in the negotiations of middle-aged churchgoers and lovers, the minds and delights of dogs, the reflections of Julian of Norwich, the slippages and yearnings of savvy and lost nursing-home residents, and the patterns of history—geological, climatic, religious. The deeply funny or grisly flows into the deeply sad. Various forms of death and disintegration are dealt out with equanimity by the universe to many of the people and animals of Varennes, yet Davis's empathy holds them, almost rescues them. She does rescue them for us, as the best novels do. Her care holds the characters even as the blows fall upon them, and so holds us as we read.

In the shifts between telescopic and microscopic, macrocosmic and microcosmic, nothing is wasted. No car, character, or animal appears that does not reappear in some form: "Every single thing that happens in a life is like Chekhov's Gun, trustfully casting before it the shadow of its own final shape, if only we knew how to see it clearly." This is mentioned so lightly, we are bound sometimes to forget that the gun is there onstage, that it is bound to go off; not because of fate, but simply because it's there. Late in the novel, an archaeologist sits by his ill wife's bedside, and because he has been told by the doctors to talk to her, he whispers in her ear what he knows about the Paleo-Indians of a far northern island: For them, he says, "Cause and effect coexisted So they often seem to do in this novel, if only we knew how to see it clearly. Davis helps us, if not always the characters--for how can they be helped--to see clearly both what is there and what is not. For, yes, the invisible can sometimes be made visible. Except. No answers are apparent, no answers revealed, despite the references to Julian of Norwich and the shapes the universe might take. What helps us to see is the clarity of the prose, as it swoops and tickles (and there is much that is deeply funny), takes in the dully or the painfully realistic, give us the characters' as well as the narrator's musings (often difficult to separate) on the irrational, both glowing and horrible.

From the outset, we are treated to heights and drops in register and scale that become the fabric of the novel. Davis's opening sentences could be the beginning of a children's story or a fairy tale: "There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall." Immediately, however, we are told that we are "in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock... The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living."

In the next paragraph, we are back at the lake, and then we are given a whimsical, theatrical vision of the sky as a circus tent "at the apex of which the sun was pinned." Such shifts do not jar. They are woven together, like the town's inhabitants and the planet, or the close shot and the very long shot, or the insect and the Milky Way: our magic carpet, or perhaps our threadbare throw rug.

Movements between time quickened and time slowed or stopped are also central to the novel's structure: "Nature... adores breaking things, and despite the patience she's been known to display when grinding mountain ranges to dust, she can also work with lightning speed..." This meditation, from a character climbing a ridge after a violent storm, serves as a concise description of the novel's overall rhythm. The quick (take it both ways) working alongside, within, the gradual; the ephemeral, the fleeting, alongside the slow-moving forces of the planet and the cosmos, the geologic and the galactic forces: all are in conversation, a conversation that seems inaudible but to which we are sometimes privy.

It is one of the girls we meet in the novel's first sentence, Mees Kipp, who is apparently responsible for bringing a dead or near-dead man and a seemingly quite dead dog back to life. Mees knows, and will grow out of knowing, that just as in the mystery stories her friend Lorna loves to read and invent, "you had to have a body," she can reach into souls (bodies?) and yank them back to the world. The miraculous hovers close. Davis accomplishes this without fanfare, without batting a figurative eye. Everyone in town wonders: What? Back to life? Or they don't: they simply accept it. For these are just people, each with a story, and few of those stories are particularly miraculous themselves.

But ultimately all the stories intersect, by absolute chance and by absolute authorial control. Neither trumps the other: cause and effect may indeed coexist. Since Davis herself brings up Chekhov, it seems fitting to point out that her characters play with and off one another much as the characters in Uncle Vanya or The Three Sisters do and the novel is founded upon an ensemble cast.

As one brief chapter tells us, the world "seems solid enough" but is in fact "a set of interlocking pieces, sometimes bound tightly together and sometimes drifting far apart..." In the same way, the characters (both human and animal), their thoughts, their actions, interlock and drift. They tread on what could be unsolid ground, over what could be an abyss, just as Billie, searching for a place to release the beaver she's saved from trapping, walks uneasily on the soft ground of a bog where two hundred years before, a lake had disappeared down a sucking hole. In mild echo, the Varennes sixth-graders performing The Pirates of Penzance sing "With catlike tread..." Echoes and echoes. Each chapter is connected by these echoes, sometimes by slim silvery threads, to the others. Each chapter is in conversation with the one preceding it and the one that follows.

A quarter of the way into the novel, for instance, when we have met many of the characters, a chapter ends with Helen Zeebrugge's contemplation of time; she has been listening to The Forsyte Saga on tape, remembering her husband when he was young, and she has just celebrated, in the rather pitiful fashion of the false cheer of the old-age home she lives in, her ninety-third birthday:

"How quickly everything changed! One minute you were a young woman with your whole life ahead of you, and the next minute all you really wanted was to be left alone to get some sleep. On the verge of the vast muffled blackness, as Galsworthy put it, where sudden shapes came rolling slow up on you, and now and then a light showed like a dim island in an infinite dark sea."

The next chapter begins with a dark body of water, with two young beavers swimming in Varennes's lake late on a full-moon night, helping their parents rebuild the dam that the humans dismantle daily. It is a connection, but a shift in register. We float from the beaver's mind ("To swim at the surface! Your belly in water, air on your nose!") to Billie Carpenter, a plain, sturdy but slightly lost, inquiring soul, to a possible God's possible love for all creatures, to the bacillus that will kill the mother beaver. Billie, who learned earlier in the day that it was Mees Kipp who had "resurrected" the man on the beach, finds herself in the Kipps' yard. Mees's dog, Margaret, awakens. Earlier, we learned, as bookbinder Andrea Murdock worked on the diary of the late nineteenth-century Varennes schoolteacher Inez Fair ("Taught school. Came home..."), that Inez had been involved in a boating accident that drowned a number of her young charges. We move out of Margaret's smell-laden brain to be reminded that in the last part of the nineteenth century there were few if any beavers left in the area:

In 1873, the year of the Sunday School Outing Disaster, the appearance of a beaver in Black Lake would have been a very rare sight indeed. It would have been like seeing a freak at the county fair. A woman with a beard. A sword-swallower. It would have been like waking some morning to see the dark moon swallow the sun. It would have been enough to make Inez Fair suddenly stand up in the boat and point.

It takes your breath, this chapter's ending, and it is so very quiet, like the night and the lake, brilliant and calm. It is a mystery, insouciantly solved.(Or perhaps not solved. We never know if this is exactly what happened). And a miracle too, the beaver's possible appearance. A disaster, like so many, brought on by a seemingly tiny action: a set of interlocking pieces. Yet what has truly been explained? The speed and slowness, the depth and shallowness of human knowledge.

The novel's climax occurs during the Episcopal Church service on Pentecost, the day of tongues of fire, and after which, to minister Richard Jenkins, there is "nothing. …week after week after week of the same old thing." As the Pentecost service begins, we know a "moment of incipience." Margaret the malamute seems to know this instinctively. Tongues of fire will descend, metaphorically, in the awful and drab form they often take, and all will be changed, and little will be changed. What occurs can be expected only in retrospect. (When the archaeologist, Daniel Murdock, recalls his first meeting with his wife in the labyrinthine back corridors of the Smithsonian, the long view creeps in: "Of course if a person looked down at his life from above, he could see the whole thing for what it was; he'd only feel lost while he was living it, when he still hadn't figured out that it was in fact a maze and that both the way in and the way out led to the same enormous empty place surrounding it.") It is shocking, mysterious, comprehensible, inexplicable, ordinary as the awful daily news, and miraculous. Each phase of the climax—that slowing down of time—is interrupted by "offstage" scenes: Margaret the dog's "thoughts," the released beaver's fate, unsavory preparations in the parking lot, entries from Inez Fair's nineteenth-century diary, Julian of Norwich's meditations on the three forms of light and clarity as she lies dying and beckoned by the dead, and the police log from the next day. Openings and closings, in every imaginable sense.

"God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through," wrote Paul Valéry. Julian of Norwich, Davis tells us, believed in a Beautiful Nothing, yearned for an uncreated, a not-yet-created God, for no corruption can enter the uncreated. At the end of the novel, nothingness swirls back into itself, taking up the future, corruption, love, all of it. The created will dissolve, yet the dissolution may not negate what is created. Sometimes nothingness throbs, and sometimes we can emerge from that thin place, or accept that we live in or near it, in incipience, which is perilous and alive.

 

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