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Review: Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Following her birthday present of, Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe’s warm and hilarious memoir about being a live-in nanny for LRB Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, my sister gave me Stibbe’s comic novel, Man at the Helm for Christmas.

Love, Nina was superb, tart, observant comedy genius, so Man at the Helm had a lot to live up to and on paper, I wasn’t sure it was going to work.  It’s the story of two sisters and a brother, whose parents get divorced in the early seventies, and their subsequent move to a rural village, where single parenthood is still viewed as a curious thing.  The goal of the children is immediately to find another man for their mother to hook up with, and also to integrate themselves into village life.  The tone of the nine year old girl narrator is darkly knowing, and the first few chapters veer through a set of experiences which might have others in therapy for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.

The children are towers of strength and sense for the useless adults around them and go around trying to organise life the best they can, in the manner of I Capture the Castle.  It’s verging on unbelievable to think that a nine and ten year old could do the things that they do, but the events and tone are so funny that I skated over this aspect of the book.

Later on in the book, as the mother’s situation unravels further, the book does become a bit darker, and the emotional implications on the children are explored further, and I was reminded of a line from a Muriel Spark book where the narrator describes her treatment of a situation as being “with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things.”  The novel skilfully captured the financial pressures, the social isolation and the loneliness of single parenthood just as well as any “serious” novel I have read on the subject (which is not that many – it’s not a very glamorous subject to write about.)  There were some passages that made me cry, remembering some of the low points of what it was like for our family in a similar situation.  I don’t like thinking about those times much, I was just so badly equipped for dealing with life, never mind life alone with two small kids.

Talking of families, my kids (now bigger) let me take a photo of us all together for the first time in years and years:

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My daughter had to point out that I was holding the camera too close the first time round:

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10 Comments

  1. What great pictures!
    Will go back to this book now, I started it about 6 months ago and was not enjoying it very much, but now will go back and try it Capture the Castle style!

  2. That’s such a good observation, comparing Man at the Helm to that Muriel Spark line. And in itself it’s a brilliant line. I enjoyed Man at the Helm when I read it, I imagine I sighed and nodded as I read the book. One quibble though is that sometimes the tone falls flat, some jokes missed their beat.

  3. I’m another who didn’t get very far with this book. I was so enchanted with ‘Love, Nina’ that anything else was going to be a bit of an anticlimax. I may give it another go now I’ve read your review, but there is so much else I feel more enthusiastic about that it will have to wait a while.

    • I think it helped that I was so dreading an anticlimax that I wasn’t expecting much at all. Hope you get something out of the book second time round.

  4. Love the photos! You all look great. It took me a little while to get into Man at the Helm – it’s such a particular deadpan style that at first I could see it was funny but it didn’t make me laugh. But once I was more accustomed to the voice I did enjoy it, and I completely agree with what you say about the serious side of the story, which comes across brilliantly in that light-hearted tone (the Spark quote is perfect). By the end, I admired it a lot.

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