Ninepins by Rosy Thornton

I’ve been hopelessly devoted to Rosy Thornton since reading her debut novel More than Love Letters, which I’ve forced into the hands of friends (and upon the book’s return, conducted pop quizzes). And so, when Thornton emailed to ask if I’d be interesting in reviewing her new novel, I was agog.

Sandstone Press, 2012) has everything I’ve come to expect from Thornton’s writing–a lovely precision of language, an eye for detail that borders on genius, and a powerful intelligence that permeates the entire work. As a bonus, her themes are close to my heart; this novel’s deeply-felt look at motherhood’s conflicting imperatives to protect and to set free spoke to me in a very fundamental way.

Ninepins is the story of a woman who finds life events overtaking her attempts to impose meaning and order on her environment and relationships. Laura, who works as a research scholar in Cambridge,  leads a peaceful life with her 11-year-old daughter Beth. But destabilising forces are at work–mostly predictable, yet utterly unsettling to a person like Laura who is heavily invested in middle-class stability. The most obvious of these forces is Laura’s new lodger Willow, a troubled 17-year-old who was in institutional care as she was convicted of arson. Laura lives in an isolated house (named Ninepins) in the Cambridge fens, and she fears the danger posed to her and Beth and the property, but she agrees to board Willow, impelled by sentiment (“And didn’t every kid deserve a chance?”)  and a fear of appearing prejudiced.

Meanwhile, the landscape too harbours its particular dangers. Laura is living on drained marshland and there’s a very real possibility of flooding, and the ground beneath her feet is sinking each year. The damp air is ruinous for Beth’s asthma, requiring hospitalization when the attacks escalate to life-threatening intensity. Water, air, and earth are Laura’s elemental enemies; Willow now brings with her the danger of fire.

But the most upsetting force in Laura’s world is also the most organic. Beth is on the cusp of adolescence, alternately rebellious and childlike, asserting her right to privacy and to make her own choices. Laura and Beth have always done things together, but Laura is now relegated to spectator at best and embarrassment at worst, and she struggles to deal with a daughter who no longer wants to be best friends with her. That Beth would prefer the company of her peers (or the 17-year-old lodger) shouldn’t have been as much of a shock, but it is.

I think it was parenting that finally delivered home the lesson that most of the things I thought were under my control were (and always would be) running rampant over my life. Laura thinks, “Maybe when they were very small you could fight some battles for them but, when it came down to it, kids had to do it for themselves and all you could do was stand on the sidelines and watch and hope and ache.” Ah, the paradox of motherhood–you protect them best by not protecting them too much. Thornton gives us a wide spectrum of mother-child relationships–there’s the middle-class “normal” relationship between Beth and Laura, but there’s also an alternative model–Laura’s ex-husband’s new wife Tessa is the utterly laid-back mother of their three unruly boys. Cakes sink, clothes get tattooed with mud, but Tessa smiles on. And then there’s Laura’s relationship with Willow, which imitates the mother-daughter relationship without the shared history of Willow’s childhood. And finally, we get Willow’s troubled relationship with her dysfunctional biological mother.

There’s some brilliant writing about motherhood in this novel. Consider this finely parsed note on the temporary absence of a child. “Beforehand, she [Laura] looked forward to the peace and quiet, which should have been a chance to get some work done…But when the time arrived and the house was silent, she could rarely settle at her desk. It wasn’t exactly that she missed her. It was something more atavistic, perhaps, like a dog that sleeps with both ears pricked for his master’s return.”

These lines exemplify why I admire Thornton–she refuses to resort to the easy explanation, she’s able to tease out and articulate the shapes of our feelings, and she finds perfect analogies to explain our feelings to ourselves. The book abounds with such passages; you have to read it slow, and then read again.

Thornton also crafts a mean plot, and Ninepins is wound tight with tension. The only quibble I had with this book is with the note of romance between Laura and a secondary character–I felt the male character wasn’t sufficiently developed, and there wasn’t enough given to the reader about the couple’s dynamic as man and woman (versus their interaction via his job and Laura’s role as guardian to the girls). But given the strength and beauty of Thornton’s writing, this is a quibble you should ignore. Visit her site at to learn more about Thornton. Buy her novels! Suggest this one to your book club! Send her a bottle of a wine!


Update: Another review of Ninepins, by noted author Adele Geras, may be found here.