The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

Kathryn Davis’s novel The Thin Place is what I would categorize as Gardening: English Village, transplanted to New England. That is to say, it’s the story of a whole town and all its inhabitants, jumping from person to person over the course of a few summer weeks.

One twist on the traditional idea is that the narration also jumps to animals, who think their own thoughts, and ones appropriate for them: a pike thinks only “kill, kill,” except in spring when it thinks “sex, sex”; dogs think about irresistible smells they must follow into the woods, delicious chickens they must chase around and eat; beavers think about instinctively hiding from humans. To some extent the narration also jumps to the totally nonsentient landscape as well, but how much that can be differentiated from a simple omniscient narrator is arguable.

I was leaning toward liking the technique for most of the novel. Endowing animals with what appears a realistic degree of sentience brings them closer to humans and highlights the way the world is changing for both humans and animals alike, but Davis seems more interested in raising animals up—ensouling them, really—than tamping humans down a bit. The town’s episcopal priest musing on his sermon is a good example:

Of course animals routinely ate other animals; it was in their nature. A Wolf ate a lamb and thought nothing of it. When a wolf ate a lamb, it wasn’t treating the lamb like something it wasn’t. For a wolf to dwell with a lamb was merely the opposite side of the same coin: the key difference being that the wolf’s appetite hadn’t been activated.

Whereas human beings since the dawn of time had continually used all of the resources at their disposal to treat other human beings like something they weren’t, that is, not human.

That “since the dawn of time” tends to give me much darker feelings on humanity. Davis insists, in an interview included at the end of my Back Bay Books edition, that she didn’t want to write a polemic about animals and the environment, and I believe her, but the tendency is there. The opposite is also there—sometimes it seems like Davis herself isn’t always sure things aren’t just awful.

But then a lot of that is tied up in “post-9/11″ ideas; things in Varennes are Changing, they are Different, life in America is Dangerous now, in New Ways. Or is it? We have that century-old diary showing just how dangerous it was in the good old days as well. No, it’s not really fair to say the novel lacks perspective. Perhaps rather than showing the undecidable nature of some questions, it just seems undecided.

Davis’s prose is pretty, but tends to the overdone or just slightly off. My favorite example: “The glacier rode the world, and the world let it change it, like a girl riding her lover and turning his prick to foam.” Those “it”s are a problem, but you know, it’s a metaphor you do visualize…. But other times she hits a much better note; one of my (real) favorites:

The world seems solid enough. The valley of the Kedron is an area of yellow sand and scattered shingle, glowing and shimmering with heat. And under the sand and shingle? …Aside from the obvious holes and tunnels made by animals and people, rabbit warrens, subway systems, missile silos, rumpus rooms, it seems solid enough, though in fact it’s a set of interlocking pieces, sometimes bound tightly together and sometimes drifting far apart, its composition various…the whole place pressing down into the viscous mantle below—descending a few inches every thousand years like the Garden of Paradise in the fairy tale, only in the wrong direction. Nothing’s really pinned in place. Everything’s moving, up and down and back and forth. Moving pieces around a ball of fire.

If you jumped at just the right moment, you’d fall through all the gaps and out the other side.

Except isn’t that like thinking that if you start jumping when the elevator cable breaks you have a fifty-fifty chance of being in the air when the car hits bottom?

The “thin place” of the title refers, according to the interview and jacket copy, to a place like Varennes, where the wall between this world and the spiritual world is thin. But that wall doesn’t seem very thin in Varennes; there is one little girl with special powers but her abilities are not limited by her location, and nothing much mystical seems to go on otherwise. If Varennes is a thin place, everywhere is, and on some level perhaps everywhere is. But here too, rather than lift everything up to a more spiritual level, pushing it down a notch would strike me as more appropriate. After all, what is more solid and material than all these animals with their scents and instincts, and look how much like us they are.

I’d still like to read Davis’s earlier novel Versailles, but was surprised not to like this one more. And my negative feelings were only increased on reading her discuss the book, which doesn’t seem like a very good sign. But the Gardening, in general, I did like.