Between A Rock And A Hard Place

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.


23 thoughts on “Between A Rock And A Hard Place

  1. Loved this review … esp. the observations about “middle-class angst” and the undercurrents of the novel. Just went over to Amazon and ordered it. Also, I thought of you the other day when I saw “Someone at a Distance” on my bookshelf … I loved that novel so much, and would never have read it were it not for this wonderful blog. Whipple was an author of such small output; I want to read all the rest of her books, but I want to dole them out so I have something to look forward to.

    • David – I am so happy to think you have found Whipple and love her. So do I. I’ve been collecting her novels and, like you, am stringing them out slowly. She is wonderful. I really hope you like Rosy Thornton, too – let me know, good or bad. I can tailor recommendations for you better when I know exactly what you like.

  2. I just got my copy, and am eager to read it, especially after this review.

    I am thankful I don’t have a teenager -particularly a female one – to raise in these times!

    • Becca – I’m so looking forward to your review! And as always, it does depend on the teenager – not that parenting is EVER not fraught with anxieties and worries, alas! I try to think that it’s part of the charm of raising a child….

    • Andrew, it is one of those little hobby horses (of which I probably have too many), because I am not like everyone else, on the whole, so I notice how drilled we all are into certain conventional tracks, notably the one that suggests we should be happy all the time, and that negativity is bad. Those of us who read (and write!) books surely can’t go along with that!

      • Hi litlove, yes, there seems to be increasing pressure to be happy these days, so much so that you almost feel guilty whenever you’re not cheery and perky. There’s a whole industry around it now. And yet despite all this, and despite rising standards of living, all measures of happiness in developed countries have remained remarkably static for the past 50 years or so. We don’t seem to be very good at this, do we?

        BTW hobby horses are good – better than apathy. You can never have too many of them 🙂

    • Kathleen, I would love to know what you make of it! Sometimes it’s teenage boys who cause all the hassle – drinking, driving dangerously, staying out til all hours. I’m very glad yours is a good boy and not causing you too much worry!

  3. This sounds very different from the last one which I still haven’t read.
    I saw a review of one of the last Badinter books in a newspaper and found it very interesting. Did you read the book – about motherhood. She wrote one before but this one is new and it seems there are
    Part of your review reminded me of that. I find a lot of what is said contradictory. I know for sure I would have been too caring and that was part of my decision to have no children.
    The book looks into a few other very interesting things. “Middle-class angst” caught my eye as well.

    • Caroline, it IS very different, and I rather like that. I’d be very interested indeed to know what you made of it. The Badinter book on motherhood is not known to me, so I will have to go and look it up. You are quite right that ideas around motherhood are often contradictory and paradoxical. The way child care instruction has changed over the centuries is downright scary, and nowadays there are all sorts of theories that compete at the level of detail. I think it’s even worse than when my son was born. I am sort of relieved that I don’t have small children right now, despite how incredibly endearing they are.

  4. Excellent review of a great book. I finished reading it this morning and it’s still strong in my mind. I need to let it settle before I write about it. My main feeling as I read it was the angst that pervades it – most unsettling. My granddaughter is coming up to Beth’s age and has already been having similar problems with girls like Rianna!

    • Margaret – yes! that angst is amazing, isn’t it? It seems to seep through everything that happens, and the plot gives the feeling that the universe is conspiring to bring disaster. I feel so sorry for your granddaughter. The mean girls never go away, do they? I’m looking forward very much to reading your review of Rosy’s novel.

  5. Some years ago for research I was reading about working class motherhood in the late 1890s when having children who survived to mid adolescence was an achievement. I thought a lot then about middle class angst and how hard it is even to know if you’re a good mother. It’s more relevant to me now, given my children’s age–and so is the novel.

  6. Lilian – the fact that medical science has so improved the figures on infant mortality is one of the best achievements of our civilisation, I think. If only we knew how best to bring them up, now that we are more assured of them being ours…. I think you’d be interested in this novel, and I am sure it is going to have fascinating reverberations with yours when I read it.

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