‘Thin Places’ by Kerri ni Dochartaigh weaves the troubled political history of Derry with the personal life of the author – the effect of growing up in a place where so much is divided by religious identity. In the first half of the book traumatic experiences keep heaping on until one starts to wonders how much more a person is supposed to take. Society, as it appears here, expects the answer to be ‘a lot’ and it comes as no surprise that many young people are lost on the way.
The book is a site of much in betweenness – national and personal identity, the physical and the metaphysical, not knowing and knowing, the natural world and the city, new and old language. The language is sensory and finds beauty of description in even the darkest of places, and celebrates the light through lyrical prose.
Nature permeates the book inward and outward, one does not trump the other as the landscape and people are co-created and embedded together. Animals, particularly birds and moths, feature as real and spectral creatures. Sometimes I wondered if these otherworldly encounters with creatures and places had happened, and did it really matter if they hadn’t. In the end there was an overwhelming sense of sincerity, that truth really matters to this narrator, and that it was the case that a depth of feeling inside manifested a sensitivity to non-human things outside that chimed.
Flight features in real and imagined ways – trauma is weightless and heavy at the same time. The pilot Amelia Earhart, is a ghostly timeless presence – we learn that one of the places the author lived in Derry was named ‘Earhart Hill’. Earhart’s last words are quoted to be “running north and south”, her final flight unanchored, lost and without hope. Alternatively the author finds a rootedness for herself in ‘thin places’ which also become sites for healing.
There is a buoyancy in the telling of the tale that avoids descending into misery memoir with place as the setting for truth to appear as something ‘larger than oneself’ – a universal truth that cannot be owned by one person. As if thin places are spaces where silence and shame fall away to reveal a shared humanity that says “me too!”
This book feels, to me at least, like a brave and generous gift.
Check out Kerri’s pocket guide to Nature Writing on ‘Spread the Word’ website for tips and inspiration https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/a-pocket-guide-to-nature-writing/