I loved Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so I was delighted when she sent me a copy of her new novel, Ninepins (published by Sandstone Press), which is very different, but very enjoyable – and far more thought provoking. Set in the Cambridge Fens, it revolves around problems of family life and relationships between mothers and daughters, exploring the difficulties of when and how to give a child more independence, and looking at the way people deal with love, friendship, trust and betrayals. The novel also touches on some serious issues, like bullying, truanting, shoplifting, and the stress faced by children who must care for parents.
If this makes it sound like a grim and bleak 'true' saga, fear not: the story is not driven by issues, but by people, and Thornton creates her characters with warmth and a light touch. She is excellent at showing relationships and describing the small details of everyday life, so you really care what happens. And her sense of place is as strong as ever – in Tapestry she made me feel as if I was in France. Here she make me sense the vast emptiness of the lonely, water-logged Cambridgeshire Fens.
The man-made landscape is mysterious, both threatening and threatened, as fragile as the people. And Ninepins, the house, is equally strange. The name has nothing to do with the ancient game, but is a corruption of nine pence, for it was once a toll house, by a bridge across the water, and nine pence was the cost of the crossing. Again there’s a sense of threat, recalling old myth of Charon ferrying souls to the Underworld – but here the characters must leave their pasts behind and accept the present before they can cross to the future.
Laura Blackwood lives in isolated Ninepins with her 12-year-old daughter Beth, and on the face of it her life is pretty good. Divorced, she is friendly with her ex-husband, whose chaotic lifestyle, with his new wife and their three loud, noisy sons is a complete contrast to her own, and her academic work involves her researching woodland management in the light of environmental and climate changes.
But Laura is a bit of a control freak. Cool, calm, collected, good at everything, she likes things to be in perfect order, neat, clean and tidy. More vulnerable than she appears, she is doing her best to cope with Beth’s asthma, and the problems the girl encounters at her new school. However, she cannot let go. She wants to protect her daughter, and keep her safe, so cannot accept that quiet, shy, biddable Beth is growing up and needs her own space and must make her own decisions, even if she gets hurt in the process.
Beth herself resents being treated as child and the restrictions imposed by her condition. She views her mother's concerns as interference, and contrasts Laura's behaviour against the fun she has during visits to her father. Wanting her independence, she makes new, undesirable friends and, to Laura's horror, she is in trouble in and out of school. Children push the boundaries, and in doing so often reject old friends and activities, just as Beth does, and I thought Thornton handled the situation very sensitively, letting us see the situation from the viewpoint of mother and daughter, as the trust between them breaks down. Those of us who have dealt with a stroppy teenager - or can remember being one - will recognise the truth of the portrait drawn by Thornton, and hope that Laura and Beth understand how much love there is between them, and manage to establish some kind of compromise.
Into their lives comes Willow, who has been in care after setting fire to an empty garage. Willow, aged 17, has never seen the tree that bears her name, and has no family or friends, except Marianne, her severely bi-polar mother, and Vince, her social worker. She becomes a lodger in the old old pump house at Ninepins, which has been converted into a small home.
As Beth struggles to find her feet at secondary school, Willow's fragmented past starts to surface. She is self- contained, controlled, secretive and distrustful... with good reason it seems, for she has had a strange childhood, where she never felt safe and, in a reversal of the usual child/parent role, she was always protective of he mother. And as Laura fights the growing attraction between her and Vince, she wonders if he has told her all there is to know about Willow, or whether there are still secrets. Is the girl a dangerous fire raiser, a threat to Laura's home and daughter – or is she a just a vulnerable teenager who needs love and the chance of a normal family life?
Tension builds, with an added sense of unease following the appearance of Willow's hippyish mother when she walks out of the hospital unit where she is being treated. I won’t reveal what happens, but Laura, Beth and Willow come though flood and fire, a kind of cleansing and cathartic process before all ends happily.