A tiny world that teems with life

In a small New England village, a cast of quirky characters probe life's deeper mysteries.

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Three fifth-grade girls go for a walk along a beach and find a dead man. Two of them run for help; the third brings him back to life.

So opens The Thin Place, the sixth novel by Kathryn Davis ("Versailles"), a novelist who has been compared to everybody from Hans Christian Andersen to Franz Kafka.

Partly that's because of the fluid way she ranges from topic to topic, but mostly it's because Davis's writing doesn't boil down neatly into punchy catchphrases. Plot synopses don't do her justice, and adjectives don't really help much, either.

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My favorite description of her work comes from a Village Voice critic: "I like to think of Kathryn Davis as the love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll, with a splash of Nabokov, Emily Brontë, and Angela Carter in the gene pool." (I'll pause for a moment while you try to wrap your head around that one.)

The last Davis novel I read tackled an Andersen fairy tale I absolutely loathe - "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf" (could be subtitled: Selfish Girl Gets Sent to Hell) - and mixed in opera and adultery.

The result was impressively creative but, given the source material, a little wasted on me. It's like telling a chef you can't abide okra and having him prepare a feast of the gooey green mess. You can acknowledge the skill, but still wish for a different main ingredient.

"The Thin Place," on the other hand, left me scraping the plate and looking around for stray crumbs. In a long looping line, Davis ties together the lives of the people and animals of Varennes (even the corn gets its own narration: "Like most feed crops it's fascist at heart....")

The girls lead to Andrea Murdock, a bookbinder, who leads to a long-ago tragedy - The Sunday School Outing Disaster - in which several children drowned, and so on.

By far my favorite character is Helen Zeebrugge, a magnificent 92-year-old who's impatiently waiting out her existence at the Crockett Home for the Aged, owned by the mother of one of the three girls. Her son, Piet, meanwhile, is shopping for wife No. 5.

Implicit in the novel's opening sentence are four unspoken words, "Once upon a time." Once upon a time, "there were three girlfriends, and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall."

They all live in a small town near the border with Canada. Mees Kipp, the small, plump one, is the healer, and the man on the beach is neither the first nor the last creature she brings back to life during the course of the novel. (Mees also has a deep connection with her dog, a flagrantly disobedient malamute, and occasionally chats with Jesus.)

What makes Davis's approach different is that Mees's gift is subject to neither shock nor awe: The townspeople never go after her with pitchforks, nor do they try to get her a TV show where she can heal people for three easy payments of $29.95.

Her healings take place among a landscape of beaver trappings, church usher committee meetings, new love, birthday parties, accidents, drug deals, and a misbegotten school production of "The Pirates of Penzance." Then Davis adds equal measures of geology and Genesis.

If the chapters written from the malamute's point of view strike you as a little precious, there is compensation found in sentences such as "Water has more properties that are beneficial to human beings than any other substance. Also it can drown you," and "The minds of 12-year-old girls are wound round and round with golden chains, padlocked shut, and the key tossed out the car window on the way to the fast food restaurant. This is probably a good thing, since what they keep in there isn't always very nice."

Old diaries, police blotters ("11:13 a.m. Raccoon acting suspiciously outside of Brooks Drug"), and a sermon or two all help to create the pace of life during one summer.

The book's climax takes place during a Pentecostal service at the local Episcopal church. If the events left me unsatisfied, that's at least partly because I wasn't ready to vacate the town of Varennes.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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