Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

A few years ago there was a reality show series on children’s telly in the UK called Project Parent, in which kids from single parent families got to give their parent a makeover and then audition and select a date for them. As a newly single parent myself back then, the whole thing made me cringe! It only got one series I think, (whereas another programme in which kids persuade their unmarried parents to get hitched and let their kids organise the wedding is still going).

If you could imagine a set of children setting about a Project Parent episode without the TV cameras, and set back in the 1970s, you’ll have the basis of Nina Stibbe’s chucklesome debut novel which starts:

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.

Our narrator, Lizzie Vogel, is nine years old when their father leaves their mother for another man! The remaining Vogels, who were used to having a housekeeper and chauffeur at their disposal, are forced to move out of the family home in town into a much smaller cottage in a small village some distance away. 

‘…our father soon got over us (and his love affair with Phil from the factory) and married a handsome woman from London with a perfectly symmetrical face and fluffy hair, and we weren’t invited to – or even told about – the wedding. Their picture was in the Mercury and it gave my sister a stomach-ache. And they started having children straight away. Which, in a way, was exciting to hear about, but, in another felt like we were being painted over with a brighter colour.’

In those days being a divorced woman was still viewed with suspicion. Their mother, a highly-strung and depressive type initially takes to the bottle, little pills from a doctor in London and writing embittered little plays which the children act out for her. These are totally arch and stilted little dialogues usually featuring characters called Roderick and Adele.

The children can’t cope without their family having a ‘man at the helm’ and so they hatch a plan:

We decided we’d contact, by letter, the suitable men in the area and invite them to have a drink with her and hope that it would lead to sexual intercourse and possibly marriage. Obviously one at a time. My sister asked me to name the top three qualities I’d look for in a husband. It was difficult because I knew so little about men, only really that they loved fires and omelettes and needed constant snacks.

This plan, having been devised by the end of page 21, is put into action. They draw up a list which includes every man they can think of, whether already married or not, to target – the doctor, the vicar, the butcher – and so the list goes on. Their next tasks are to engineer situations for their mother to encounter the men on the list. It is vital for success that neither their mother nor the potential beaux know that they’re on a date, which leads to some rather tricky situations.

This is all complicated by the children having to go to school and try to be accepted around the village, something the village is as reluctant to do as the children. This isn’t helped by having a competitive mother in the nativity costumes and fancy-dress parts of school life, and thus scaring off several men who could have been suitors.

The children get their first possible taste of success when they add cowboy builder (not that they know he’s one) Charlie Bates to their list. Their mother seems to take to him and his plans for a new kitchen for them…

We know that true love will usually crop up under the most unlikely of circumstances in a novel of this kind.  Will this happen for Mrs Vogel? That would be telling.

Man at the Helm is a delicious comedy about village life, old-fashioned attitudes and children running just a little wild, having a wonderful outdoorsy and project-filled life as we did back in the day. Being ten years old myself in 1970, the novel was a real nostalgia trip for me – I near gurgled with delight when the children realise their mum needs feeding up and get out Ursula Sedgwick’s My Learn to Cook Book to find a recipe – I still have my copy!

On the other hand, the broad comedy contrasts with poor Mrs Vogel’s position. Suffering from heartbreak and depression, she neglects herself. Used to a more lavish lifestyle she struggles to make ends meet – needless to say for the children this is very much a big adventure. Lizzie is a charming narrator, very matter of fact and mature for her age. Mrs Vogel is never named, and Lizzie always refers to her as ‘our mother’, which is as if they are looking after her all the time.

Nina Stibbe first came to our attention with her epistolary memoir Dear Nina, which recounted the time she was a nanny in North London for the children of the Deputy Editor of the London Review of Books for some years in the 1980s. Her memoirs were cosy, yet with a little edge and enlivened by the fact that their neighbour was Alan Bennett who was always popping in. Her letters home to her sister in Leicester were witty, yet self-deprecating and Nina, who was twenty at the start, matured and went on to university and you could sense there might be novels to come.

She’s taken her time since then, bringing up her own family, but after Love Nina, with a Man at the Helm she has arrived. Maybe I did slightly prefer Love Nina, although I think that was most likely due to her capturing the Eeyore-ish Alan Bennett perfectly, but this was also full of fun, and I hope to be reading many more Stibbe novels in the future.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and doesn’t need a ‘Man at the Helm’ at the moment, but a reputable handyman to do some repairs would be useful (to the house!)

Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm (Penguin Viking, London, August 2014) 978-0241004152l, hardback 314 pages.

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