Review by Annabel
I’ve been a fan of Nina Stibbe since she first hit the literary scene in 2013 with Love, Nina, an hilarious memoir of her years nannying for the Gloucester Crescent literati in the 1980s, told partly in letters home. Next came three volumes of stories about Lizzie Vogel and her family, in which the young narrator goes from matchmaking child in Man at the Helm, through being a jobbing teen in a care home in Paradise Lodge, to becoming a dental assistant in Reasons To Be Cheerful (sadly a lost Shiny review!). The latter novel won Stibbe the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic novels in 2019 and the Comedy Women in Print Prize in 2020 establishing her as that rarity – a writer who can make you chuckle all the time as you read.
In her latest novel, having launched the marvellous Lizzie fully into the world, Stibbe has moved on from the Vogels. However, she hasn’t moved location: we’re still in Leicestershire, in the Midlands, where Stibbe hails from.
We begin in the present with our narrator Susan in the University of Rutland’s Vice Chancellor’s office where she works. Susan is struggling with composing the termly newsletter, ‘It seems to have been all lowlights this term,’ she reflects gloomily. It’s fair to read from the following pages that Susan and her husband Roy are firmly in midlife crisis territory, but instead of following that up now, we head off back to 1990 to follow Susan’s life and how she arrives in the VC’s office. It begins…
I met my husband Roy Warren for the first time at the Two Swans café in the town of Brankham, in late June 1990. I’d always thought of it as a place of romantic encounter because of its wall-sized mural featuring a pair of swans, beak to beak, with amorous eyes and whose necks formed a heart. I’d finished my first-year exams and had come home to work for the summer at the haberdashery shop where I’d been a Saturday girl, but arriving at the shop that Monday morning found it locked and a note on the window reading ‘Late opening due to power cut’ and so went across the road to the two Swans to watch from the window for developments and have a cup of tea.
In walks Roy, and they get chatting over his egg on toast, and Susan is pleasantly surprised to find she has butterflies in her stomach. When she sees the shop opening up, they part, knowing they’ll meet again.
Time to meet her second new person of the day. Susan crosses over to find someone new in charge. It’s Norma-Jean Pavlou, daughter of the Pin Cushion’s owner. Norma, the star academic, hitherto ‘protected from the drudgery of shop work on account of being a scholar’. From this point onward, Norma will feature strongly in Susan’s life. At first, it’s because they have to work together, but a genuine friendship does develop. However, maintaining that relationship is not easy. There will be times when Susan and Norma will be (fr)enemies when Norma uses Susan to further her own glittering career and relationships. There will be other times where Norma will surprise Susan with moments of true empathy (or is it?).
Alas, Susan’s academic hopes will be dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, but Roy is delighted with the idea. They marry and Susan drops out of her English Lit course at university going full-time at the haberdashers until their daughter Honey is born. After that, life begins to get a bit complicated for all. The shop is sold, Roy gets a shock from old girlfriend Josie, Norma marries a bounder who drops dead leaving her a rich widow and we begin to realise that it’s a small world in Brankham, situated right next door to the university, where Susan gets a job in the Estates department, and Norma is now on the teaching staff. Those midlife crises begin to loom.
Covering over thirty years of ‘friendship’ right up to the opening weeks of the pandemic, Stibbe packs an awful lot into this novel. The comedy is edgier in a different way to the light-hearted youthful antics of Lizzie Vogel, reflecting the age of the narrator. Susan is clever, but a practical sort, who will make the best of everything. Norma reminded me of Mitford’s ‘Bolter’, flitting in and out, going from affair to affair, marriage to marriage, knowing that Susan will be there for her. I love campus novels, and the fictional University of Rutland is surely inspired by David Lodge’s own Midlands uni, ‘Rummidge’, another hotbed of academic mediocrity and sparring dons which needs to level up. Professor Willoughby, the VC, however comes across as a good man, a trier, if out of his depth – he does need a good PA to do the job with him.
This novel had some super funny moments, but also plenty of bittersweet ones. As I mentioned above, there is a sharpness to the text that comes from Susan’s thwarted ambition and unequal relationship with her erstwhile best friend. It was great to see Honey come into her own as she grows up, and she helps to provide the tragicomic climax and explain the novel’s title. One Day I Shall Astonish the World shows the development in Stibbe’s writing into becoming a fine novelist, and still with that comic edge leavened with occasional whimiscality, and I will certainly carry on reading her.
Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors and is always on the lookout for modern comic novels.
Nina Stibbe, One Day I Shall Astonish the World (Viking, 2022). 978-0241451168, 369 pp., hardback.
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