Advertisement
Books

Thin Places by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh: Heady, bright and difficult to pin down

One of the things Ní Dochartaigh does to reconnect is to learn the Irish language. The power of place to heal trauma makes for a beautiful read, says Dani Garavelli

The Thin Places in the title of Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s intense memoir-cum-nature book are “places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in”. They are pools of stillness in a “broken, burning and bleeding world”. They are remote havens where the author has felt “hope like the beating of moth wings on [her] skin”.

The author grew up in Derry – or Londonderry – a town whose very name is a statement of religious affiliation. But, the product of a mixed marriage – a Catholic mother, a Protestant father – she was neither one thing or the other.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.

In 1995, her father left home and the family were petrol-bombed out of their Protestant estate. But they were no more welcome on the Catholic estate they fled to. Then her closest male friend was murdered. Ní Dochartaigh got out of Northern Ireland as quickly as she could, but carried her trauma with her.

For much of her life, hope was all she had to cling to, and those thin places provided a refuge from the memories and the invisible border that existed as a “ghost vein on the map of [her] insides”. Only when she realises that to go forward she has to go back does she begin to recover, and even then it is a fraught journey.

Thin Places is part of the process; a therapy, if you like. Ní Dochartaigh’s emotions are never far from the surface. She writes in great cresting waves of pain and we surf them with her. Sometimes the tone is so heightened, and the rhythm so hypnotic, it reminds me of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“I was crying for the years of transience,” she writes. “I was crying for my own unbroken silence, I was crying for lost things, I was crying for things not yet lost.”

Swept along in her unhappiness, the reader shares her desire for wild spots where feelings are numbed by icy winds. But this makes it sound relentless, and it is not. Though sporadically solipsistic, it contains moments of great beauty.

One of the things Ní Dochartaigh does to reconnect is to learn the Irish language.

At the Bridge of Sorrows where, during the famine, families said farewell to those departing for America, she sees butterflies, and goes in search of the Donegal bog word for those ephemeral creatures.

It is dealan-dè, which translates as “fireflaught” and “speaks of the phenomenon observed by shirling a stick lighted at the end: a flash of lightning that comes to you from somewhere closer than the sky”.

That’s a good description of the book. It is heady, bright and difficult to pin down. It is also redemptive. The Irish word for hope, we are told, is dòchas or dòigh, which holds, within its roots, glimmers of “dóighiúil”, the word for giving. Ní Dochartaigh takes that hope and gives it to us all.

Thin Places by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh is out now (Canongate £14.99)

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
John Vercher: We now know contact sports are dangerous – so is it ethical to watch them?
Books

John Vercher: We now know contact sports are dangerous – so is it ethical to watch them?

Must read books this Autumn: An essential list to brighten the short, dark days ahead
Books

Must read books this Autumn: An essential list to brighten the short, dark days ahead

Morbid Obsessions review: A safety blanket for the marginalised
Book reviews

Morbid Obsessions review: A safety blanket for the marginalised

Was JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit a historical novel?
Books

Was JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit a historical novel?

Most Popular

Read All
How much will the Queen's funeral cost?
1.

How much will the Queen's funeral cost?

The internet's best reactions as Kwasi Kwarteng cuts taxes and lifts the cap on bankers' bonuses
2.

The internet's best reactions as Kwasi Kwarteng cuts taxes and lifts the cap on bankers' bonuses

From benefit claimants to bankers: Here’s what the mini-budget means for your pay packet
3.

From benefit claimants to bankers: Here’s what the mini-budget means for your pay packet

5 ways anti-homeless architecture is used to exclude people from public spaces
4.

5 ways anti-homeless architecture is used to exclude people from public spaces

To mark our new Arctic Monkeys exclusive interview, we’ve picked out some of our best band and musician interviews from the past, featuring Arctic Monkeys (2018), When Jarvis met Bowie, The Specials, Debbie Harry and more. Sign up to our mailing list to receive your free digital copy.