I’m surprised and even ashamed that not until The Thin Place, her sixth novel, have I ”discovered” the marvelous Kathryn Davis. It’s no comfort, either, knowing I’m not alone in my ignorance. Davis’ work wins acclaim, prizes, good reviews, and cult fans entranced by the independent-minded originality of her material and the sheer beauty of her language — and then the books seem to vanish from the backlists. (I found a lone copy of Versailles, her 2002 novel about Marie Antoinette, on the shelf of my local big bookstore. With my purchase, they’d better restock.) There’s excitement, then, in hanging on to Davis’ newest novel for dear life, exulting in the quiet glow of her virtuosity — and sometimes even laughing out loud at the precision of her descriptions.
Varennes, Davis’ fictional American town somewhere near the Canadian border, may or may not be atmospherically affected by aberrations in the ozone layer; the thinness of the title instead describes a condition of spiritual porousness that allows miraculous things to happen. And most of those wonders involve the hand of Mees Kipp, an otherwise ordinary 12-year-old girl touched/cursed/blessed by an ability to bring the dead back to life. This ”small and dense and tempestuous” girl — ”you might think she was the least spiritually evolved child imaginable” — heals a fat man found face-down on the beach, an Easter chick, a dog who took a bullet, and a dangerous criminal. And no one pays her much mind. Davis populates her stubborn, odd, and not even very nice town with old ladies, trappers, hippies, and a minister with a come-hither daughter splayed on a lawn chair in front of the rectory soaking up the sun. ”On the nod? There were rumors, but more likely it was too much trouble to fully open her eyes, given the quantity of eye shadow she was wearing.”
That’s the thing about The Thin Place, with its stark references to Jesus and prayer, its casual bawdiness. Davis herself writes from a generous vantage point where a fervent appreciation of the world’s physical and spiritual glories — the Gerard Manley Hopkins in her, a graceful observer of nature’s opulent fragility — collides happily with a down-to-earth understanding of teenage preening, of lust, of pettiness and meanness and human ridiculousness. Sometimes she writes from the point of view of a dog (”Many deer beds and some human pee in a bush and also birds in trees and lots of squirrels too high to reach and then a house”). Or of lichen (”manna star fold star. star star fold reindeer. fold fold fold fold. starlight starlight”). Then she coolly notes a child named Brittany Bliss, ”dressed like one of Carmen’s coworkers in the cigarette factory, which is to say in the whorish style currently popular among sixth-grade girls.”
Davis moves with such slithering ease from documenting the material world to describing the ineffable that the reader may occasionally feel disoriented. But a good part of the novel’s pleasure lies exactly in that skewed dreaminess. Although this startling book is not at all like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, it is touched by the same love of life and gift of grace.