Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe - book review


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The Independent Culture

Like Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love, Nina, collecting the letters she wrote home when nannying in London, her debut novel could be subtitled “Despatches from Family Life”. It begins on the day that nine-year-old Lizzie’s family implodes. She explains, in her sweet, forthright way: “My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel – a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.”

Soon their parents are wrestling on the floor amid eggs, coffee, and “shards of wet Daily Telegraph” and Lizzie is watching, agog, and willing her mother to throw her father off “judo-style”. And then he’s gone, and the family moves to a village in Leicestershire – all “grey curly haired people with angry eyes and wellington boots” – where single-parent families are very much not the norm.

This is the Seventies but, from the way the village treats its divorcée, it may as well be the Thirties. Indeed, there’s an old-fashioned feel to the whole book, which recalls Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle, particularly in its young narrator’s combination of artlessness and casual revelation, and in her droll, vivid voice.

The girls can’t get into the Brownies, their mother is in danger of becoming “a menace and a drunk” and, worse, turning to playwriting; she has an unfortunate habit of working out her real life dramas on the page, then getting her family to act them out.

So, Lizzie’s 11-year-old sister comes up with a plan to get a new “man at the helm”. They make a list of potentials, and, pretending to be their mother, write them letters inviting them round on various scanty pretexts. What follows is both farcical and tragic – and men come off very badly. The sisters’ naivety also leads to some of the most perceptive writing I’ve read about relationships in a while.

But mostly, this book is very, very funny. Stibbe has a fine eye for absurdity, and her writing has an unforced charm. The extracts of her mother’s plays (punctuating the novel like the snippets of dialogue in Love, Nina) are particularly hilarious. But the family’s burgeoning despair is definitely not; there is real darkness here, which makes the humour shimmer all the more.