Rosy Thornton very kindly sent me a copy of her new book. I started it as soon as I could and read it very quickly, always a good sign. The story is set in the Cambridgeshire fens, where Laura lives in an isolated house with her young daughter, Beth. Brr, why does anyone choose to live in the fens? I think of floods, of biting winds and insidious damp, of Waterland, of generations of people suffering from ague. To a fenswoman like Laura, they have a strange beauty. they used to stand here side by side … and watch the sky slowly bleed from grey through mauve to black. There was so much sky at Ninepins. From here on top of the dike, looking out across the lode, across the empty fields beyond, it seemed to dwarf the earth, vast and tall and toppling. On days like today, when cloud was sparse, it held a quiet luminosity which lingered even after the sun was gone; the lode and banks were lit by a soft, persistent glow which seemed to come from around and within as much as from above, outshadowing the orange smudge of Cambridge on the southern horizon.
Laura is a nice middle class woman with an academic job in Cambridge; she’s on good terms with her ex, her life seems controlled and normal. All the conversations, Beth’s school life, the very food they eat are completely modern, with no ghosts or mysteries from the past about. Yet from the very start of the book, the reader is on pins waiting for something awful to happen. The premonition begins when social worker Vince persuades Laura to accept teenage Willow as the new tenant for the old pump house on her land. Laura is already worried about Beth’s asthma and her problems at a new school. Now she’s taking on an unknown girl who’s been convicted of arson and has no family apart from a ‘waste of space’ (Willow’s description) mother. And she lives in the middle of nowhere. Is it too much of a risk?
This book explores the modern family and its different forms: Laura’s cosy mother and daughter set-up, her ex-husband’s chaotic household full of wild little boys and the insecure life Willow led with her mother. The feeling of threat comes from the landscape itself as well as from the outsider. There is a dénouement but no spoilers here. Rosy Thornton is so good at evoking place and atmosphere. When I read The Tapestry of Love, I felt I was living in France. Reading Ninepins I could almost feel the cold damp of the fens creeping into my bones. Highly recommended for a tense read.