The cultural theorists used to say that if you wanted to judge a society, you looked at the way it treated the women. After reading Rosy Thornton’s latest novel, Ninepins, I’m temped to suggest that nowadays we need a little refinement to that statement, and that we should look to mothers and their conflicts to understand what contradictory requirements our society holds dear. Ninepins is a darker novel than the others I’ve read by Rosy, and one that sustains an atmosphere of impending menace as issues of maternal anxiety are put through the wringer. How much can we protect our children in today’s world, the novel asks us – and at what point does our urge to protect them become a problem in itself?
The story revolves around Laura, a single mother, and her 12-year-old daughter, Beth. They live in an isolated house in the fens situated precariously on the dyke by Elswell Lode, the river that is in essence a drainage canal. The property comprises a separate self-contained flat that used to be the pump house, which Laura rents out to students for a little extra cash. When the novel opens, Laura is somewhat reluctantly taking on a different kind of tenant, the enigmatic Willow, a seventeen-year old who is recently out of care. Willow alarms Laura in all kinds of ways; her history of mild arson, her uncommunicative nature, her lack of obvious direction. But Laura knows she should give Willow a chance, and she is unwilling to air her prejudices before Vince, Willow’s social worker, who seems to come as part of the package.
But Laura’s greatest fears surround her daughter, who is starting, all too early, to jib at the restraints and restrictions of childhood. She has fallen in with a different crowd at school, one that obviously contains the sort of tough, bad girls who instantly signal trouble. And she wants to be allowed all sorts of freedoms that Laura is unwilling to give her. Laura’s anxieties are easily traced; not only has she had an overly close relationship to her daughter in the absence of her husband, but Beth is severely asthmatic. Yet the reader knows Laura is treading an uncertain line between protection and intrusion, as her loving concern leads her into infantilising her daughter and snooping in her bag and on her facebook pages. Laura cannot help but be suspicious of all her daughter’s newfound desires, afraid that they will lead her into danger. And as Beth starts to get into trouble in and out of school, her deepening friendship with Willow is another nagging cause for alarm.
On one level this novel is about the drama of separation, the toxic mix of negative emotions that all mothers must go through when their children assert their own autonomy, including the right to make their own mistakes and errors of judgement. But it is also about the difficulty of striking the right balance between freedom and security around children. Laura’s relationship with Beth is contrasted to her ex-husband Simon’s new family, a chaotic and lively household with three small boys where anything goes, but it is also judged against the relationship Willow had with her psychotic mother, a story that we learn in a series of flashbacks. When mothers hold such a genuine burden of responsibility for their children, how can they live carefree and unconcerned? If we make parents responsible for everything that goes wrong in a child’s life, how is it possible to escape being paranoid about their safety?
But the deeper layers of this novel seemed to me to ask even more challenging questions. Laura and Beth live a comfortable middle-class life, but Willow, and the girls that Beth wants to hang out with at school, come from a different sector of society, where real damage happens. The narrative knowingly dramatises a certain kind of middle-class angst, where liberal views rub uncomfortably up against the fierce injunction to normalise, to follow a certain fantasy of what a ‘good’ life looks like. Increasingly, we feel that we ought to be able to avoid the everyday tragedies and disasters of existence: illness, accidents, petty crime, under-achievement, lives spoilt by addictions and obsessions. Equally we know we should not judge those who have suffered from such catastrophes. But the abstract desire to embrace a multi-cultural society, a multi-faceted society, does not mean that we have dealt with our primitive fears of difference and otherness. Willow comes from a different world, and Laura will have to struggle to overcome her ingrained and unacknowledged fear of contamination by that difference, her gut response that difference means trouble. And then her desire to be liberal and accepting leads her into a sort of shyness and passivity that will ultimately do them all no good.
As ever, Rosy Thornton provides a gripping story that contains all sorts of interesting and provocative depths. This is a beautifully written portrait of a mother trying to deal with all the fears – genuine and groundless – that we currently create around our vulnerable children, who seem to grow up too fast and too slowly in our mixed-up world.