Man at the Helm

man at the helm

I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical WW2 classic Slaughterhouse-Five. About five people died in three pages, each unemotionally outlined with the ending refrain “So it goes.” I put the book down.

I picked it up again. It told me what the first and last line of the book-within-the-book were going to be. I put the book down.

I picked it up again. It talked about a character being abducted from earth by telepathic aliens called Tralfamadorians. I put the book down.

It was just too much for a fraying brain in a nearly-eight-month’s-pregnant body. War? No. Aliens? Never. In search of an easy read, I turned to Nina Stibbe’s debut novel, Man at the Helm.

There was all sorts of fuss about Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina a little while back – the real-life letters home of author Nina Stibbe while working as a nanny for a bohemian London literary family back in the day. Call me cynical, but I suspect half the fuss was due to the literary establishment’s pleasure at finding itself in the limelight. Anyway, it set her up well for her first novel, Man at the Helm, which has a similarly naive narrator’s voice. In this case, we see through the eyes of 11 year old Lizzie as her parents divorce and she and her siblings move to a rural village with a mother who should never be in charge of children. Lizzie and her older sister soon come to realise their low standing in the eyes of the village, and their mother’s inability to keep things together, and identify the imperative need for “a man at the helm” of their family. They set about identifying and recruiting this man, with mixed results.

Stibbe captures the child’s voice very well and the result is charming. The slow revelation of the mother’s shortcomings are brilliantly handled – what first seems childish exaggeration unfolds slowly to a picture of medications, affairs and financial ruin. Stibbe is an instrinsically comic writer, and even when dealing with darker themes the book remains funny. It’s not laugh-out-loud, but there’s a wry smile on your face at narrator Lizzie’s forthright account of the world. Falling on hard times, the family are forced to move from a rambling house to a cramped estate, but almost prefer it for putting them in a more comfortable relationship with the rest of the village. That child’s perspective keeps the story fresh.

Having said that, at times there is too much in the way of childish ramblings. The book is dotted with pages and episodes that go nowhere, and don’t seem to contribute to any larger narrative or theme. For a shortish book, it drags its feet. However, it’s easy reading and there aren’t mentions of Tralfamadorians, so you plug on merrily enough and pleasingly find that the end DOES go somewhere – and all the more pleasingly, it’s an authentic place. I hope it’s no bad spoiler to reveal that the novel DOES end with a man at the helm, however much Lizzie says she’d have liked to end it with feminist independence. Stibbe denies this pat 21st century conclusion in a way that shows much more maturity and realism – a pack of women may very well be able to handle themselves without a moderating presence, but not THIS unruly pack and certainly not this unruly mother.

This is no American Pastoral, but you don’t want it to be. It’s light, it’s real, it’s quite funny, and frankly, I haven’t the heart for much more right now. Sometimes, simple hits the spot. This desire for simplicity is only going to increase so, a plea to you: please let me know your recommendations for easy, but not stupid, reads. Either that or it’s the Richard & Judy bookclub, and I don’t think it’s come to that yet. Quite.


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