Ninepins by Rosy Thornton
It's been very clear, I think, from Rosy Thornton's last two books that, if she decided to tackle something a little darker, she would be more than capable. Ninepins confirms it - this is decidedly not a book to pick up when you've only got an hour to spare. You'll be turning the pages hours into the night, desperate to know what will happen next. It's about single mother Laura, who needs a new lodger when her expected postgraduate has a change of plans - with term already started there's no point in looking for another student, so Laura advertises with Housing Aid in Cambridge, and social worker Vince turns up with 17-year-old Willow, newly out of care. The old pumphouse in Laura's garden doesn't honestly seem ideal for a first attempt at independent living, and Laura has doubts, but Willow is adamant that she wants to live there, and Vince is perhaps a little more imaginative than many in his profession. So somehow Laura's doubts never quite get voiced, and it's only once Willow's actually moved in that Laura finds out why she was taken into care - for arson.
Thornton weaves three elements - fire, water and breath - through her compelling story. Water is ever-present in the Fens, and the action focuses tightly on Ninepins, the house beside slightly ominous the lode, as the seasons change. If we, as readers, would like to know more of what goes on in Willow's head, so too would Laura, who might be more successful in establishing rapport were she not so preoccupied with her daughter Beth's painful transition from childhood to adolescence. Beth's behaviour is well within the bounds of normality, especially following the move from primary to secondary school, but it's difficult for both of them as Beth explores the boundaries of parental control and the teenage girl's urge to grow up too quickly. Thornton is particularly incisive when dealing with that over-dependent bond between single mother and only child, and the hurt that both feel when its extent is tested. For twelve years they've been close, affectionate friends , sharing everything, but suddenly, Beth doesn't want her mother to be part of her birthday outing, nor to answer caring questions about where's she's been. Now she wants to go shopping in Cambridge with her frankly alarming new friends, and pink birthday cake isn't cool any more. That might sound a bit facile, but any mother knows how much these little rejections, usually delivered with an air of impatient hostility on the part of the child, can wound, and Thornton digs deep into the gulf that yawns when neither is sure how to repair things. Because however sensible people may be outside the home, when faced with an angry family member bedrock becomes an earthquake zone...before I take that metaphor too far, children, of course, don't yet have the resources, and it is generally up to adults to effect repairs. Laura is new to problems with her daughter, and is overly conciliatory which, as parents who've been at it longer know, is a bad idea with teenagers. Willow, of course, is uncharted territory.
If I've strayed into the geographical there, it's because its hard not to see the Fens in those terms, with its straight lines, its Hundred Foot Drain, its acres of sky. And its Siberian climate. But there's a strange beauty in that bleakness, and Thornton catches it perfectly. This is a book to savour, and to return to.