Kathryn Davis’s readers are no strangers to poeticism. In her eerily transcendent novel, The Thin Place (2006), set in Varennes, a small town in New England, there is a thin place, barely separated from the spirit world, according to legend. Many of the residents of Varennes are religious in varying degrees: they attend an Episcopalian church, where ordinary people mingle with the eccentrics, and plaques commemorate eight children who died in a Sunday school picnic accident in 1872. Their teacher, Miss Inez Fair, who also died, insisted on taking them out in an unsafe boat. This historic event haunts the residents of Varnennes.
Davis is proficient at characterizing both children and adults. Mees, a sensitive, angry 12-year-old girl, considered abnormal by her teachers, can bring people and dogs back from the dead. Her friends, Lorna, an aspiring writer who falls in unrequited love with a cruel trapper friend of her father’s, and Sunny, who is more mature than the others , do not understand her ability. The other characters are also sympathetic. Andrea is a bookbinder who used to live in a geodesic dome and is currently binding the diary of Miss Fair; her husband is an archeologist who prefers living in a tent; Reverend Jenkins is a liberal and comforting minister; Helen Zeebrugge, who hates living in a retirement community, listens to the Forsyte Saga through headphones; her attractive sixtyish son, Piet, is having a purely sexual affair with a French teacher; and Billie, a nature lover, joins a church security committee because she is lonely and has a crush on Piet.
Piet is a runner. But during a run, he cannot stop arguing with himself about God and the universe. What is the meaning? What is God?
The universe a doughnut. A teacup. A scroll. Like a garment turned inside out. The outside of a bag without anything in it. No throat. No tongue. No mind. Also, no ventriloquist.
Let there be light, God said. But what was God that God could say that? where did his mouth come from?
The narrative is interspersed with short essays about the universe, creation myths, flood myths, and science. Davis has said in an interview that these essays are from her point of view.
There are comic animal scenes. The dogs, prowling at night, run away and kill chickens and then guiltily go home. We hear what they are thinking, and their loyalty to their owners. A cat wanders into the church, then to the old age home, then onwards. But there are sad things about the animals. The determined Beau traps beavers in inhumane traps.
And sadly, some of the characters have accidents or are threatened, which is very slightly reminiscent of the historical 19th-century Sunday school picnic.
This is a difficult book to talk about. Like all of Davis’s novels, I absolutely loved it. Davis uses elements of science fiction or magic realism, whatever you prefer to call it. Davis has won a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, a 2000 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 2006.
One of my favorite novels of the year.
I also recommend The Walking Tour.
Sounds fascinating, Kat! I’ve not read any of her work – maybe she isn’t so well known over here?
That is highly possible! I loved this book, and she is respected here. Somebody or other referred to this as “a cult book,” I suppose meaning that it only appeals to the few. I think many would love it.
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I had never heard of this novelist before but this is someone I would love to read and will look her up and add her to my wish list. The effort made on the struture and writing of the book makes it fascinating. Thank you, Kat.
Davis is a great writer, and every book is completely different. She has a very odd sensibility. I hope you will find one of her books!
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This seems to be a book and writer deeply involved in developing religious thought, in understanding religious belief, why people have it and how it operates or feels. It’s interesting to me that magic realism can be used for such a project. Yes, much more than gothic which interrogates religious thinking as atavastic and dangerous — because if there is a metaphysical or supernatural world it is dangerous to living human beings. Magic realism replicates verisimilitude in different ways than gothic, it’s done in an upbeat mood, it has been respected by some (over much) since it emerged. So it’s a natural subgenre for this kind of thing.
As you say, this is an area hard to talk about, one social norms are intended to do all they can to inhibit us from discussing.
It’s fascinating, and she is fascinating. Terrible things happen that make one wonder what she believes about God. It is really the story of a small town, with people going about their everyday lives, and having their strange thoughts, with the chapter-long musings, and then unexpected events. I’m not sure it’s quite ABOUT religion, but certainly that is part of it.