August 29, 2014 5:25 pm

‘Man at the Helm’, by Nina Stibbe

A novel of comic understatement and fine detail

Nina Stibbe’s first book Love, Nina (2013) was a collection of letters to her sister in Leicestershire, which chronicled her life as a nanny at the heart of north London’s literary set during the early 1980s. It’s a charming, funny memoir, in which Stibbe displayed a rare ability to note the mundane details of life without rendering her prose boring.

With her debut novel Man at the Helm, Stibbe ought to win a wider audience. Set in Leicestershire during the early 1970s, this is the story of an unconventional family. Elizabeth Vogel, like Stibbe’s own mother, is a young divorcee at a time when divorce was unusual and rendered the newly single woman something of a pariah in village society.

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The book is narrated by daughter Lizzie, the middle child, who notices everything and regurgitates for us the wise words of her preternaturally mature and knowing older sister (who remains unnamed throughout). It is the sister who comes up with the plan to help their depressed and pill-addicted mother. “‘We need a man, Lizzie, and until we find one, we’re as good as lepers,’ she said.”

There’s a comic aspect to the sisters’ hapless hunt – they write letters to likely men “and hope that it would lead to sexual intercourse and possibly marriage” – but through Lizzie’s eyes we see the real drama of their mother’s predicament. The search is not for a man, but for what he might represent: stability, respectability and normal family life.

 

Lizzie’s observations are matter-of-fact: “Our mother . . . was by far the best-looking woman at the [village] show – the pill-induced wooziness, and the light shapes in the dress pattern which moved like fluffy clouds in the summer sky, all adding to the general effect.” The sentiment behind them, however, is heartbreaking.

Stibbe’s talent for comic understatement is given a wonderful airing here, although a certain familiarity with early 1970s English life would probably help in appreciating the finer points (“Meanwhile, alone at home, we’d be making Ritz and Primula sandwiches . . . ”).

Man at the Helm is an unusual and deft work. In Stibbe, Leicester has produced a fine chronicler of the comedic potential of provincial English life and its sometimes baffling mores.

Man at the Helm, by Nina Stibbe, Viking, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

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