Review: Thin Places is a brutally honest and unflinching exposure of trauma
For me, thin places cannot be categorised into one particular genre of writing. Thin Places is however a book of its time, placed against the backdrop of Brexit in a country where it is mainly unwelcomed. Whose fragile peace is threatened to be once again destabilised by the politics of another land.
The relationship of space, place and time runs like a golden thread throughout this book. Its whole axis turns on the author’s relationship with her home town of Derry and the impact it and the Troubles in Northern Ireland have had on her relatively young life. I can see how some might see it as nature writing in part but for me the beautiful prosaic passages of nature are as much part of place as the Troubles, the grief and the lostness. They are all intrinsically bound up with one another. Something the author herself acknowledges:
“We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed.”
I know that I have a passion and propensity for trauma-laden writing and find it addictive and satisfying. However, this book takes trauma to another level or it takes the telling and exposing of trauma to another level.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh is the offspring of a Protestant father and Catholic mother and finds herself, along with the rest of her family, refugees in their own country. In a country that has been so clearly defined by sectarianism, where which side you are on really matters, it is shocking to find this family falling in between the cracks, with no one to stand alongside or seek solace from.
“We were nothing other than ‘other’ – indefinable, unnameable, fallen down into gaps in between.”
Reading this book was exhausting and yet so hard to put down. The emotion was at times so raw that you got to a point where you felt you could bear no more and then, as if the author senses it, she offers that calm, beautiful balm of nature in which she is so clearly grounded. Her love of the Irish language and her rediscovered Celtic heritage offers a richness to the text and draws the reader deeper and deeper into her place.
It is this exploration of place and places that makes this book so compelling. It is for me the most interesting, fascinating and rewarding theme. Kerri’s realisation that whilst place might define you it cannot save you, is beautifully summed up:
“Places do not heal us. Places only hold us; they only let us in. Places only hold us close enough that we can finally see ourselves reflected back.”
As the title suggests, Kerri Ní Dochartaigh introduces us to thin places and takes us to many of her thin places throughout the book. She describes them in ethereal and sometimes unreachable language. She defines them as places where people feel very different from how they normal do.
I understand the concept, I have experienced thin places myself and yet I wonder how accessible they might be for others. She describes them as being that gossamer thin line between the physical and the spiritual.
In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope.
The Celtic thread draws me in. I don’t have a thin place in Ireland, as yet, but I have many in Wales. I am reminded of a recent rediscovery in Abergorlech, in the ancient Glyn Cothi Forest of Brechfa, where I wander through the woodland, onto the forest floor with the crystal-clear waters of the Gorlech river to my right. The river runs through the middle of this forest, sheltered by the giraffe like trunks of the conifers, offering shade in the height of summer and shelter on cold, rainy days. The translucency between this world and another palpable.
It is in this type of place that Kerri’s gut-wrenching, deep-seated trauma and her experience, appreciation and knowledge of nature meet and she finds those glimmers of hope.
The author reaches a point where she is compelled to leave Ireland and we are treated to a brief but insightful tour of those places that begin her process of healing in Scotland, England and Wales. But the sense of fleeing is strong. She is not so much called to these places as feeling the compulsion to run from them. Running to leave behind the sadness, pain and devastation, yet not being able to escape them either.
“I was being enshrouded by the geography of a city many miles across the sea. I was being haunted by places I thought had long been abandoned and buried far beneath my feet.”
For me, one of the most powerful stories in the book is her account of losing a close, male friend in the small friendly village of Ballykelly. Her friend was violently murdered yards from his home and hers. Ní Dochartaigh’s account of the impact on her and the whole community is brutal and still raw. She goes on to explore those difficult themes of grief, suicide and addiction. Those traumas that define us all to some degree. She shared the shocking statistic that more people have died from suicide in Ireland since the Good Friday agreement than were killed in the political violence of the troubles.
Three quarters of the way through the book, I was craving some let up, some hope, a chink of light. There are of course glimpses, in the thin places, but they are so fleeting one feels a despondency so powerful that you have to take a breath, to set the book down for a while, to save yourself from drowning.
In fact, I found myself listening to rather than reading the book in parts. It’s narrated by Kerri herself. Her voice lifted the text off the page and added to its authenticity. The inflection on the right words, the haunting emotion as she tells her story all add to the impact of this book.
So, when she decides, after a total emotional breakdown in Bristol, to return to Ireland, I find myself hugely relieved. I experience it as a very physical reaction, like a wave of hope washing over me. She returns home, to M, who cradles her with such love and patience that your heart aches. I found myself willing her to trust, to accept that love, to know that she deserves it.
She keeps us waiting, there is more trauma and more abuse, before we finally, tentatively, see signs of recovery, of hope, of healing. Just like the tiny signs of spring, as young shoots emerge from the dark and dank soil of winter, so we begin to see a new Kerri emerge. Like one of her much-loved butterflies from its chrysalis. The transformation is not complete and I suspect never will be, there is much, much more to do. No doubt much, much more to write.
Thin Places can be purchased here.