Milk and Terror: Kathryn Davis Crosses the Border

The small town of Varennes is a hive of visible and invisible activity. As in Kathryn Davis's previous novels like Hell and Labrador, borders between the commonplace and fantastical are impossibly porous in The Thin Place. Davis's spectacularly weird and layered portrait of Varennes sometimes channels the thoughts of dogs and beavers, or burrows deep inside the earth. The town census includes an old lady confined to a nursing home who fights a daily battle against indignity and a local historian who pores over the diary of the town's 19th-century schoolmarm (a teacher notorious for leading her charges on a doomed, Picnic at Hanging Rock–style trip locally known as "the Sunday School Outing Disaster"). Then there's the trio of 12-year-old friends "drawn together by a mysterious alchemical process involving pheromones and geography as well as a shared love of their teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, and a shared terror of the milk they were given to drink at snack time, which was never cold enough and tasted waxy." One of these girls may even have a mystical talent that allows her to see through death.

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The Thin Place
By Kathryn Davis
Little, Brown, 275 pp., $23.95

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Davis crams so many characters into this remarkable, snaking tale that you almost wish she'd provided a chart at the front to keep them straight. But how could you diagram this jumble of creatures and things bound together by an ever-shifting structure? As the narrator explains, the ground beneath Varennes (and beneath all our feet) is not solid at all but merely "a set of interlocking pieces"—a hodgepodge of geological forces "moving, up and down and back and forth. Moving pieces around a ball of fire."

 
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