Friday, 10 October 2014

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

published 2014
set in the 1970s








[The village garden party]


Eventually it was the idea of seeing Debbie in the dog show that appealed to our mother, and she went to her room to get ready and reappeared in a flimsy dress whose pattern could have been the dancing shadows of a wind-blown tree - but might equally have been a coffee stain. She’d taken to wearing hats in public and that day wore a floppy one to suit the dress. And sandals which were so flimsy it was as though there was no sandal at all, only a thin leather string looping her big toe and heel. She looked a dream…


Our mother looked so pretty with loops of soft hair falling around her bare shoulders. Her sleepy green eyes looking so unusual and big under the floppy hat. She was by far the best-looking woman at the show – the pill-induced wooziness, and the light shapes in the dress pattern which moved like fluffy clouds in the summer sky, all added to the general effect.







observations: This is the book with the strange history. Nina Stibbe worked as a nanny in the 1980s for Mary Kay Wilmers, a key London literary figure, and wrote to her sister several times a week. Her sister happened to keep the letters; they were rediscovered recently; and the collection was turned into a book – not this one, a book called Love, Nina. I loved that book beyond words – I’ve read it 3 times in 6 months, and imagine I will be re-reading it forever: it is charming, real, affecting, and deliriously funny. Important figures such as Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Stephen Frears flit through the pages; Nina decides to pursue her studies; moves out, moves back in again; thinks about boyfriends and hairstyles. We glimpse the children she looks after, and her own family, and her boss.

Everyone who loved it must have had the same reaction to the news that Nina Stibbe had written a novel: anxiety to get hold of it and read it as soon as possible, and a terrible unspoken fear that it wouldn’t be any good, that it was only being published because of the success of the first book. In fact it is terrific, very readable and funny, but also very strange. It probably IS only published because of the first one, but that raises questions about the way publishing works rather than over Nina Stibbe’s talents.

Anyway, it seems to be worryingly autobiographical (what does her mother think?) - her pony has the same name and she likes the same deodorant in both the fiction and non-fiction.  Man at the Helm has a 9-year-old narrator, Lizzie. Her parents are getting divorced, and she and two siblings (one, her older sister, remains unnamed through the whole book for no apparent reason) and their mother are moving to a small village in the 1970s. Here they are not made at all welcome: they are strange, too rich 
(apparently, though not in fact), and ‘feral and manless’. The mother is not coping at all well and lives on pills, alcohol and cigarettes. The young girls decide she needs to find another man, and the book outlines their attempts.

This probably sounds a lot softer and twee-er than it actually is: all the time you are laughing at the farcical situations arising from this, you are also wincing at the likelihood that it was all too real, and not that much fun to live through. The 1970s atmosphere is really well-done, and child protection wasn’t such a big deal then, so some of the strange things the girls get up to are acceptable – like going off to London to persuade a doctor to give their mother more prescription drugs. The mother is plainly in a very bad place, and is not looking after the children very well at all. By the age of 11, Lizzie is spending her dinner money on cigarettes. The book is simultaneously bleak, jaunty and desolating in a way that I simply have never come across before, but it’s so funny and clever that Nina Stibbe gets away with it. It will be interesting to see what she writes next.

The pictures are from a 1970s fashion magazine.


15 comments:

  1. Not feeling the love for it I'm afraid. I'll pass.

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    1. Fair enough. Haven't even planned the next entries, so I'm not sure what there is for you coming up...

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  2. Moira - It's always interesting when a book takes a child's perspective like that. And I can well imagine that there is some harshness underneath the wit. I'm glad to hear that you weren't disappointed in the novel. And by the way, Love, Nina sounds terrific!

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    1. 'Love, Nina' is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who likes the idea of real-life letters from the 1980s, and a glimpse of London literary life through the eyes of a nanny from a different world. The book is very very good - though not for everyone. But the child's viewpoint is exceptionally well done.

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  3. I love the photos. The hats are nice, and in the top photo it looks like she has on crocheted gloves made of very tiny yarn. Not sure about the books.

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    1. Well spotted - the gloves are vintage, I think looking back to the 20s or 30s.

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  4. Love those hats.

    I'll put Love, Nina on my TBR mountain range. I read a review of it that interested me.

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    1. I know - aren't they splendid? Do try Love,Nina if you come across it.

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  5. I'm not sure I've ever seen a real person with green eyes. I keep thinking about Hercule Poirot's green eyes gleaming like a cat, but it is a weird sort of image... ;-)

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    1. A good point Vicki, now you mention it. Another character in the book has 'blue eyes that had once been brown' which I also found surprising.

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  6. I've seen people with green eyes. People in my family have hazel eyes, blue with green, though mine are green and brown.

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    1. I am very bad at noticing people's eyes, I never know what colour anyone's are. It was always a key part of descriptions in books, and is seen as a very bad sign (inattention or lack of interest) if people don't remember eye colour, and I have to plead guilty.

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  7. I don't notice eye color either, but with friends who have blue eyes, I do notice that. Maybe I notice it because one side of my family has hazel eyes of all types, more blue or green or brown, and the other side has dark brown eyes.

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  8. I think this is Mel Martin from Love for Lydia, 1977.
    Can't wait to read Love, Nina and then maybe Man at the Helm. Thanks for the spotlight.

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    1. Well spotted, you are absolutely right! It was a fashion magazine article about the way they did the clothes for the TV series, but I thought that might get a bit complicated, and the pictures looked fine for Lizzie's Mum so I just let it be. Very impressed that you got it in one....

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