Reviewed by Annabel
In Nina (of Love, Nina) Stibbe’s first semi-autobiographical novel Man at the Helm (reviewed here) we were introduced to the Vogel family. In it, the three Vogel children who were not yet teenagers tried to find a new partner for their newly single mum, believing that families need ‘a man at the helm’, with hilarious results.
It wouldn’t really be spoiling to tell you that it ended happily, and five years later the Vogel children are living with their mum and Mr Holt, whom they like very much. Paradise Lodge takes up the story once again through narrator Lizzie, the middle child, now fifteen and supposedly starting to study for O-levels (the UK forerunner of GCSEs, sat in Yr11) (by the way, the novel is set in the mid-1970)s.
However, Lizzie needs a job – she doesn’t have any money to buy life’s essential little luxuries. Her friend Miranda says that the residential and convalescent home Paradise Lodge needs staff…
The Owner’s Wife then asked us why we wanted the job. I answered first, explaining that my family couldn’t afford two types of shampoo or two types of coffee so I was stuck with Vosene and Woolco’s econo-coffee (which was half coffee, half chicory extract). And since my sister had begun bringing home all sorts from a part-time job at Woolworth’s, it had become my ambition to progress on to Linco Beer shampoo in its little barrel and Maxwell House coffee with its fresh-aroma promise.
They both get jobs, and this is the start of a whole new life for Lizzie, who needs the money even more once her mum has another baby, Danny. They have to tighten their belts even further.
‘What’s it like to have a baby?’ I asked my mother – I meant how did it feel, emotionally.
‘It’s like shitting a football,’ she said.
‘I meant, emotionally,’ I said.
‘Shitting a football,’ she repeated.
Lizzie enjoys working at Paradise Lodge and we’re gradually introduced to the other staff – the Owner, the Owner’s Wife and Matron, as well as some of the residents including Lady Briggs, who has a private room, and Mr Simmons, who loves to help the staff out. Lizzie works hard, unlike Miranda who is always mooning after her boyfriend Mike Yu, with whom she has progressed from kissing to ‘erotic hand-holding’.
The author has given us a lovely set-up for the drama that follows. A sparkling new rival home sets up in town. Paradise Lodge starts haemorrhaging staff and Matron, whom nobody likes and whose qualifications have always appeared dodgy, ends up in charge.
Lizzie takes on more and more shifts and starts skipping school which brings her to the attention of the deputy head, Miss Pitt, who threatens to take her out of the O-level stream. Lizzie is an intelligent girl, easily capable of doing the exams, but Miss Pitt presents a real problem. What is Lizzie to do? She wants her exams, but she’s committed to the suffering Paradise Lodge too.
This is a very gentle comedy, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life. Lizzie soon sees the home’s morgue and experiences the death of residents, one falling on top of her as she dies, pinning poor Lizzie to the ground. The staff take bets on who will be next to go, Matron comments that’s another ‘eighty quid a week gone’.
The author’s humour is targeted primarily at the staff rather than the residents. The nurses would like nothing more than to be taken on as nurse/companion to a recovering older gentleman, who would then leave them a large legacy!
As the novel progresses, we get to know all the characters well. Most have little foibles and secrets which are gradually exposed, leading to much comedy. Lizzie is a charming and totally reliable narrator, wise beyond her years at times – but in others, seduced by TV advertising as we’ve seen. She’s a ray of sanity in a mad world, having to manage school and work, which get cleverly combined into the main plot.
The set-pieces made me chuckle and smile, but Paradise Lodge was less laugh-out-loud than Man at the Helm. It is, however, an easy, upbeat novel, gently funny but touching when needed. Ideal for the summer.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and remembers Linco Beer shampoo!
Nina Stibbe, Paradise Lodge (Penguin Viking, 2016). 978-0241240243, 288 pp., hardback.
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