Last year, Nina Stibbe’s hilarious and heartwarming Love, Nina was the surprise hit of the year. Consisting of letters sent to her sister Vic while she was a nanny for the children of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Claire Tomalin lived next door and Alan Bennett often popped in for tea. For her debut novel, Man at the Helm, Stibbe has taken the humour, the playwriting and the child’s point-of-view and crafted something just as funny but with a darker undertone.
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.
Lizzie, our narrator – 9 at the time of the incident – goes on to tell us that after a fight involving a pan of eggs and a wrestle on the floor that the housekeeper Mrs Lunt has to intervene in, her mother and father divorced. Her sister, aged 11, on hearing that their father had gone to live in a flat exclaimed, ‘Poor Daddy’, to be met with the response, ‘Poor Daddy? Poor Daddy is over the fucking moon.’ Daddy, it turns out, had been having an affair with Phil, a man from the factory he owns.
Lizzie, her sister, their younger brother Little Jack and their mother move to a village in the Leicestershire countryside. Realising that their mother is in trouble – she’s 31, divorced, a drunk, a menace and the writer of terrible plays, the girls decide they need to find her a man:
‘If a lone female is left, especially if divorced, without a man at the helm, all the friends and family and acquaintances run away.’
‘Do they?’ I asked.
‘Yes, until there’s another man at the helm,’ she said.
And then what? I asked.
‘Then, when a new man at the helm is in place, the woman is accepted once again.’
There are two key issues facing them: one, because their mother is a young divorcee in a village, her and the children are ostracised; two, their mother’s sadness – there’s no doubt as the novel progresses that she’s suffering from depression, although it’s never referred to as such – means that they might be made wards of court and placed in Crescent Homes two villages away.
In order to try and prevent this, the girls create ‘The Man List’ including all the eligible men in the village, married or not – ‘You’ve heard the saying “All’s fair in love and war”, haven’t you?’ – and begin writing to the men, posing as their mother, inviting them round for a drink under a pretense related to their occupation.
Man at the Helm is very funny – there are some great one liners as well as some funny scenes and one brilliantly absurd set piece featuring a crazy pony. However, as with most comedy, there is a sadness alongside the humour as a family have to deal with a divorce, hostility and some very bad behaviour. It’s a novel with a warm heart and an unexpected third section which was touching and very satisfying. I loved it.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.