Ninepins by Rosy Thornton

24th May 2012


Her style varies from book to book – More Than Love Letters was a witty take on the epistolary novel while The Tapestry of Love followed a more traditional third person narration – but the constants of her work have been a convincing grasp of emotional nuance and a gently bubbling sense of social engagement.

Her latest publication, Ninepins, takes her in another new direction by infusing a domestic drama with some of the trappings of a thriller and a grim sense of menace.

The action begins as Laura Blackwood – like Thornton herself, an academic and mother living in the Cambridgeshire fens – returns to her remote home to meet a potential tenant for the converted pumphouse at the end of her garden.

Rather than the graduate students she’s accustomed to housing, she’s met by social worker Vince who’s chaperoning 17-year-old care leaver Willow looking for her first independent home. Keen to do the right thing – and uncertain if she’ll find another taker – Laura agrees to let Willow move in despite some lingering concerns about Willow’s past and the potential impact on her 12 year old daughter Beth.

As Willow establishes herself within the family, and as more is gradually revealed about her history and character, Thornton generates a pervasive atmosphere of unease which is augmented by the superbly evocative portrait of the physical and emotional isolation of a remote house in a bleak, grey winter.

The tension which seeps through the bulk of the novel is immaculately orchestrated; Laura’s anxieties are manipulated to heighten minor incidents into crises and the reader is made complicit both in her fears and her own guilt at struggling to live up to her own liberal ideals.

Saving the novel from ever being merely a potboiler is the subtlety of characterisation which has been a hallmark of Thornton’s books. Every protagonist is treated with generosity and allowed to be properly rounded and never reduced to a stereotype; this has the handy side-effect of keeping the action constantly surprising and never falling into the predictable plotlines which sometimes seem to be lurking around the corner.

Some of the most moving sections of Ninepins are those parts which seem slightly at a remove from the principal thrust of the story: Beth’s transition from child to teenager and the resulting painful changes wrought on her relationship with her mother, and single mother Laura’s efforts to reach an emotional accommodation with her ex-husband’s new family.

It’s here that Thornton’s firm grasp of human drama is most obviously present, and ideas about mothers and daughters, and the nature of responsibilities moral and legal, are fascinatingly explored.

Perversely, it’s this breadth of narrative and experience which perhaps stops Ninepins being quite as wholly satisfying as some of Rosy Thornton’s previous books.

There was, for me, a sense that the novel sometime shoots in so many directions that it lacks the sense of focus and coherence which marked, for example, The Tapestry of Love.

Having too much to say, though, is a very forgiveable complaint and especially when it’s wrapped up in a book which is as gripping as it is honest and unflinching.

Ninepins was published last month and is available in paperback or Kindle editions.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Mothers, daughters, worried liberals and anyone ready for a slice of mildly gothic rural melancholia.

Other recommended reading: For another peek at Cambridgeshire’s seamier side, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. For an alternative look at tensions in a surrogate family, Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver.

Kate Phillips