Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, book review: Amusing romp through trials of the Vogel clan

 
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The Independent Culture

Having won praise for her first book, Love, Nina (letters recounting life as a nanny in 1980s north London), I'm sure I haven't been the only one eagerly awaiting Nina Stibbe's follow-up. Her debut novel doesn't disappoint; Stibbe's uniquely entertaining voice is instantly recognisable.

Following the discovery, by their mother, of their father's affair with "Phil from the factory", the Vogel siblings – nine-year-old Lizzie (our narrator), her older sister and brother Little Jack – find themselves negotiating the stormy seas of a picturesque but narrow-minded English village in the early 1970s that doesn't exactly welcome a play-writing, whiskey-swigging divorcée and her children with open arms. "If a lone female is left, especially if divorced, without a man at the helm, all the friends and family and acquaintances run away," Lizzie's sister explains.

Thus, in a hunt for social acceptance, not to mention an attempt to evade their greatest fear – being made wards of court and dragged off to Crescent House, the children's home two villages away – the sisters draw up the "Man List". This involves listing the eligible men in the area – from the local Liberal candidate to the coalman – and firing off faked invitations from their mother, asking each of them over for a drink in the hope that the tipsy couple will then "have sex in her sitting room and do it enough times until they got engaged and then married". So far so straightforward, though the children are somewhat hampered by the fact they know barely anything about men, "only really that they loved fires and omelettes and needed constant snacks".

Lizzie is the perfect conduit for her creator, just the right mixture of childhood innocence and incredulity for the necessary deadpan delivery of Stibbe's particular brand of comedy. A trip to the Wallace Collection for example is – disappointingly –not the small zoo Lizzie had been expecting. Then there's the time she's left looking like Rod Stewart after her mother instructs the hairdresser to trial a feather cut on her; Lizzie looks great, but as she points out, "I was 10 and lived in a small village and stylishness didn't get me anywhere."

The bonkers Mrs Vogel – the star of the book – makes for a continually brilliant foil to her offspring. Announcing that she's pregnant, she has no compunction in telling Little Jack that she's stealing his name for the new baby: "Your real name is James," she reminds him. "You'll have to go back to being James or start being called Jim or Jimmy."

Single life is a bumpy reality check for her but she comes into her own after insurmountable debt forces her to get a job driving a laundry van and further downsize to a two-bedroomed semi on an estate (here flashes of Caitlin and Caroline Moran's TV show Raised By Wolves sprang into my mind).

Mostly, though, comparisons to Nancy Mitford seem apt; everyone is poked fun of and everything comes out in the wash at the end despite their ghastly trials and tribulations along the way, which, of course, are definitely not to be wallowed in. Read it and be charmed.

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