When was the last time you read something truly lovely? And not only lovely, by which I mean pleasing to the imagination and the mind’s eye, but funny, too? Think about it—funny and exquisitely lovely. Now hold onto those two qualities and add these to the mix: fiercely intelligent, spiritual, and thought-provoking.
Also a little bit creepy. But hopeful, too.
OK, now that you’ve got that much information stored in your head, take out a pencil and a piece of paper. On one side of the paper, number one through fifty. That’s how many characters you are going to need to keep track of in this novel’s 288 pages, give or take a character of two. Excuse me, did I say characters? I meant to say human characters. There are also several dogs, cats, birds, a bear, a few beavers, plants, trees, earth, wind, sky, stars, planets, and bodies of water having their say at the same time. And others I’m sure I’ve left out. You know that old piece of advice to fiction writers: create a world? Kathryn Davis took that advice seriously.
Somewhere near the Canadian border in Davis’s world sits the fictional town of Varennes, “the thin place” of the book’s title where the membrane between life and death is sheer enough to sometimes let a character leap to the other side. As we’re told on the first page: “The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They’d gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living.” But this is no horror story. On the contrary, this is a love story, or perhaps more accurately, a love letter to life.
What plot there is begins with three girls coming across a dead man’s body on the shores of a lake, the same lake where tragedy struck a hundred years before, killing eight children in a boating accident. One of the girls— the stubborn and strange twelve-year-old Mees—telepathically reaches inside the dead man and brings him back to life. And so begins a long unfolding of events, questions, and comments on the human condition and the nature of, well, nature. And God. Evil. Death. Life. The universe. And whatever comes next and whatever was here before. Religion, biology, sociology, and the hard cruel fact of growing old. Other plot lines emerge and intertwine: friendships falter, marriages flounder, lovers cheat, dogs kill chickens, cars crash, boats sink, knives tear into flesh, the elderly face daily indignities and the fact of frail bones. The town itself is a character, revealed through the local newspaper’s police blotter, the horoscope page, the gardening almanac, diary entries from a century ago. And everyone grows older, including Mees, whose powers come into play again at the crucial moment when many of the plot lines converge. That this climax takes place in a house of God, with all of the (still living) characters present as witnesses, is no coincidence.
As Davis says, “I wanted to write about life—about the great mystery of what it means to be a living creature in this world, and to do that I knew I would need to loop above and below and into and out of all of the living creatures in the world of my creation.” My apologies, but there’s no way to make this complicated book sound less complicated. Davis’ most amazing feat may be that she has managed to make something this dense and jampacked also accessible and entertaining. Reading this book is a little like looking at a huge painting, the canvas covered with details, too many to take in at one time, and being mesmerized by a piece of art filled with a passion that is violent and beautiful.