Nina Stibbe has got to be one of the most naturally funny writers around. If you’ve read Love, Nina, the author’s collection of letters home during her time working as a nanny for LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, you’ll love her first novel Man at the Helm.
With the same honest, write-what-you’re-thinking style, Man at the Helm is an account of a single parent family moving to an English village in the ’70s where the locals say things like ‘you’re more than welcome’, which, as we discover, actually means you’re not welcome at all.
Through the eyes of Lizzie Vogel, a small girl with a very grown up attitude, we follow her and her slightly elder sister attempting to find a new ‘helmsman’, in order to make their family more acceptable to this close-knit village where a divorcee who is ‘temperamentally unsuited to housework’ does not belong.
Terrified of becoming wards of court due to a mother who, after the breakdown of her marriage (which involved and incident with a pan of cold eggs), becomes a menace, a drunk and a playwright, Lizzie and her sister try to remedy the situation by writing letters to some of the male suitors of the village (most of whom are already married). As a result, the girls’ mother endures many awkward encounters, pregnancy, and almost financial ruin.
The child-like over-description and simplicity of logic from Lizzie is refreshing, for example, believing her parents won’t split because they have plenty in common: ‘they looked alike, both adored toast, they had the same walk (heel down first), loved Iris Murdoch and had a habitual little cough as if they were saying ‘Come in’ very quickly.’ Through moments like this, we experience the trials and tribulations of a family adjusting to unusual circumstances and trying to be accepted, through the innocent eyes of a ten year old girl.
It’s hard to tell whether some of the events recounted by our protagonist actually happen, or whether they are the work of a child’s imagination and tendency to exaggerate the facts, but either way, this book had me laughing out loud on almost every page.
Add a little brother who claims to go deaf when his eyes are shut, and a charismatic pony who can’t look out of upstairs windows into the mix, and you’ve got an hilarious, honest novel about not-so-perfect family life, but where everyone pulls together, through thick and thin.
I can’t help but think that Nina Stibbe must be a lot like her character Lizzie, as the writing style and Lizzie’s expression of thoughts echo those of the author’s letters in Love, Nina. This is an author who would definitely be on my list of people to have round the dinner table, and I’m sure we wouldn’t be past the first course before I’d fallen off my chair with laughter.