N Dochertaigh was born in Derry-Londonderry at the height of the Troubles to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, and has been deeply affected by poverty, loss and trauma in her life. And yet this exceptional debut, a steely but spellbinding blend of memoir, nature writing, social history and politics, is about the beauty and healing to be found in unexpected "thin" places; in shafts of light you see in the darkness, and in a love of the natural world. Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot are among those in thrall to her writing and so now, am I.
Having herself attempted suicide several times, she notes that the suicide rate inNorthern Ireland is the highest in the UK and among the highest in the world. She writes of borders — not just the one between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but between life and death, light and dark, past and present. These are the “thin places”, the liminal spaces that offer glimpses of other possibilities and of healing. Dochartaigh takes great solace in nature, and much of the book is a meditation on the beautiful landscapes and flora and fauna that surround her.
The strength of Ní Dochartaigh’s vision is that nature doesn’t have to be uncomplicatedly lovely. Her thin places are ancient burial sites, but also fields at the back of an estate or a built-up back garden with a cherry blossom tree in it. Her book “[seeks] beauty in the murk” as well as in the obviously picturesque.
Yet Thin Places never really offers a convincing alternative. The ambivalence and “otherness” of the project is contradicted by a familiar language of breakdown, recovery and consolation: “the lines of my map had blurred and I didn’t have a compass”; “Grief is a country that has no definite borderlines”. Nature too readily offers up its hoard of metaphors. A starker rhetoric might be better suited to the in-between places Ní Dochartaigh evokes. One not yet owned on either side of the border between self-help and nature writing: one that doesn’t yet belong.
This is a powerful, bracing memoir that asks what happens when a child grows up in a city that isn’t safe. Without sentimentality and with great generosity, ní Dochartaigh describes the alcohol dependency and suicidal thoughts that dogged most of her adult life. Beyond Derry, there are other, awful traumas: a beloved friend is murdered; she undergoes medical treatment while in an emotionally abusive relationship. It is clear, though, that the trauma first took root in that unsafe home town.
Her hybrid book attempts to hold the reader in place between two contrasting genres: nature writing and Troubles memoir. It is an often precarious balancing act, the two strands, one wondrous and elemental, the other violent and unsettling, sustained by the vividly descriptive prose... I found myself by turns astonished and exhausted, enthralled by passages of sustained imaginative power, but often needing to put the book down so unrelenting is its heightened emotional pitch... Thin Places is at heart a survivor’s story located in the real and brutally Darwinian world of lived experience, a world more red in tooth and claw than nature itself.