Thin Places is the first book from nature writer Kerri ní Dochartaigh and is an affecting, poetic and lyrical memoir of growing up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry, in the 1980s. Her mother was Catholic and her father Protestant and in Derry at that time this kind of mixed-religion marriage was not common. As a result, ní Dochartaigh’s childhood featured trauma and violence – culminating in a homemade petrol bomb being thrown through her bedroom window.
This childhood trauma has permeated throughout her adult life, leaving her prone to depression, unable to settle in one place and not knowing where, or who, to call home. Instead, she finds solace and comfort in ‘thin places’, spaces in nature that bring a sense of peace and an understanding of the complexity of the world.
The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces – those in-between places – those unnamable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the and, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves?
Her exploration of the pull of these ‘thin places’ allows her to excavate her past and come to terms with the pain through which she has lived. Combined with this inquiry into the healing power of nature is memoir, history and etymology as ní Dochartaigh examines her own life within the realm of ongoing political uncertainty in Northern Ireland.
Nature writing and Troubles memoir might initially seem like strange bedfellows, but ní Dochartaigh carefully walks a fine balancing line. Borders are physical places as well as metaphorical political footballs and by grounding her book in the history and earth of Derry, she manages to blend the elemental with the visceral. This is an emotional history of the Troubles, told through the life of one woman and it is all the more powerful for that.
In lyrical prose she describes the tectonic events that have shaped her life – her parent’s divorce, the violent murder of a teenage friend, the violence witnessed regularly on the streets of Derry, invasive surgery and abusive relationships – events that have caused her to always be looking for escape.
Fear held me tightly in the belly of its storm…and my identity, which had once seemed so fiercely outlined as a teenager, had faded at the edge; the lines of my map had blurred and I didn’t have a compass.
Nature becomes her compass and she immerses herself in ancient folklore, the Irish language and the beauty of the natural world. An eventual return to Northern Ireland in her late 20’s sees her come to an acceptance of who she is and who she has become.
As beautiful as the writing is, Thin Places is at times a very difficult read. Kerri ní Dochartaigh keeps the details of the trauma she has suffered vague – no names or distinct descriptions – and this might be frustrating for some readers. However, I felt that it allowed her memoir to feel more universal and easier to relate to. This is ultimately a very hopeful book, infused as it is with the believe in the significance of every aspect of nature.
I am still that same wee girl who spent her childhood there, and I think I always will be. That wee girl who stood beneath a sky – ravaged by thick black smoke – full of beautiful, winged creatures hovering and diving, dipping and soaring, glistening and calling, circling above me. I am still looking for the things that guided me through – the things that guide me through, still – and I know I always will.
It feels very easy to forget what we all went through here in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and indeed, Thin Places brought back some difficult memories for me.
But if we don’t remember, then how can we know how far we have come and how much we still have to lose? Thin Places is a reminder of the fragility of life and of peace, and is a celebration of nature, beauty and resilience.
With thanks to Canongate Books for my review copy.
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