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