The “thin places” that give this book its title exist in Irish mythology as thresholds or portals to the other side; sites where the veil between this world and the next is most porous. Known to locals through oral stories passed down the generations, they are vestiges of an older, stranger Ireland, their resonance still palpable, Kerri ní Dochartaigh suggests, to those attuned to their otherness. “They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves,” she writes, “as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.”
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. The journey begins in the windswept northerly reaches of Donegal, where she names the small wild things she sees around her in Irish – leamhan (moth); dreoilín (wren); crotach (curlew). That very act is, as it turns out, a way of grounding herself in history and place, of asserting her sense of belonging to an older culture, not just pre-colonial, but pre-Christian.
Ní Dochartaigh grew up just a few miles away in Derry – or Doire or Londonderry, depending on your political loyalties. When she began writing Thin Places, the invisibility of the border between the two counties of Donegal and Derry was threatened by the looming possibility of a hard Brexit. Her anxiety at that possibility and the violence it might reignite is the first ripple of unease in a narrative that grows darker and more unsettling the more it delves into the recent past. She describes the border as “the thread that has run though my life”, and more intriguingly as “a ghost vein on the map of my insides”. In many ways, her book is a kind of emotional history of the Troubles and their aftermath, laying bare the ways in which the violence she witnessed altered her nervous system and her psyche.
Born and raised in Derry, the daughter of a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Kerri ní Dochartaigh grew up feeling neither here nor there in a city riven by decades of sectarianism and violence. Her search for belonging takes her far and wide, to Dublin, Cork, Edinburgh, the Isle of Mull, Bristol and beyond, but always draws her home, where her troubles began. Aged 11, she had her family home in the Protestant Waterside area petrol bombed in the night by local youths. She was alerted to the danger by the presence of a semi-feral stray cat that had turned up on their doorstep a few weeks before (“The claw marks (she) left on my face when she was wakening me in my smoke-filled bedroom left me embarrassed in school for months, but she made sure I woke up”).
The family fled to a Catholic neighbourhood, returning a few days later to gather up the remains of their belongings. They found them dumped in the garden by the strangers who now occupied their old home and who steadfastly refused to acknowledge their presence. On the other side of the River Foyle, their uneasy life ended just as abruptly when they were bullied by neighbours who had noticed the minibus that turned up one day to take the young Kerri to a youth club. On its side were the words Clooney Hall Methodist Church Londonderry, a litany of provocation to the locals. “We were intimidated out of Earhart Park,” she writes, stoically, “during the only spring we spent there.”
In Ballykelly, less than 20 miles away, she briefly finds a kind of Eden. “It was quiet there, and calm, a kind of place I had never known before,” she writes. “Friendships seemed to be above any idea of difference… the first question I was asked was what my favourite Nirvana song was.”
Few places in Northern Ireland, though, escaped the violence. When she was 16, a local boy that she had grown close to – “the first person to give me a Valentine’s card” – walked her home from the chip shop, before setting off to rejoin his friends in town. “He had curtains in his hair, held in place with thick, gunky gel,” she writes. “His waves were as sculpted as Binevenagh mountain, and as blond as a cherub. He was murdered, most likely less than an hour after I said goodbye to him.” His body, naked and bloodied, was found the next day in a shallow grave in a nearby wood.
It is these seismic, destabilising events that echo through Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s adult life and frame her narrative of belonging. “Fear held me tightly in the belly of its storm,” she writes, “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.”
In her memoir, she emerges, altered, as an individual who, having spent years withdrawing into herself for protection or numbing herself with alcohol, has found a rare kind of peace by immersing herself in ancient folklore and the natural world, surrendering to its beauty and its elemental power.
The story of how she got there, though, is a turbulent one and her writing of it unflinching in its intensity. 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. And although her animist worldview bestows a sacred significance on every living thing, whether a dancing moth, a wind-bent reed or a passing urban fox scavenging for food, 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.
• Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply