Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, was an hilarious memoir of her experiences as a nanny catapulted from rural Leicestershire into the literary circles of North London in the 1980s. In Man At The Helm she has turned her comic talents to fiction, albeit with a dash of personal experience.
It is 1970 and Lizzie and her sister find developments at home a little bewildering after her father leaves following a fight :
‘Mother will go 100 per cent crazy on her own,’ said my sister. ‘Let’s pray he comes home soon and they don’t split up.’
‘They won’t split up.’ I said.
‘I bet they will. They have nothing in common – they’re chalk and cheese,’ said my sister. I didn’t agree. I thought they were just different kinds of cheese (or chalk).’
To set this conversation in a context you have to understand that divorce in 1970 was not yet commonplace in the UK. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced the concept of a ‘ no fault divorce’, was not enacted until 1973.
Just a few years after this fictional conversation takes place, I came home from a school trip to Germany to have my sister whisper to me in our bedroom at night that things had been pretty awful and she thought Mum and Dad would have a divorce. My reaction was exactly the same as Lizzie’s – I told her not to be so stupid. It was perfectly normal for parents not to get on.
In fact Lizzie’s sister, just like my own, is perfectly right and so begins the family’s descent into chaos. They become a single parent family , headed up by her shell-shocked mother and regarded by all with suspicion . Lizzie’s sister is convinced that the children will end up wards of court sent to a children’s home their only hope is to begin a quest to find their mum another husband – a man at the helm.
The book is full of period detail. I laughed out loud at references to the feather cut ( yes, I have some hideous school photos of that) and also Chi-Chi the panda. It was mention of My Learn To Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick that really had me chuckling. This formed part of my own childhood library. My sister still has our copy and our disastrous attempts to make, I think, Apple Crumble directed by the cartoon dog and cat led to a ban on using the cooker when my mother was out at work.
Lizzie is an astute observer of family life and relationships. She writes ruefully about having to agree with her big sister even when she isn’t too worried about the issue herself :
‘Except that what bothered her bothered the rest of us in the end.’
Her mother had some early and fleeting success as a playwright before getting married. In the turmoil of a marriage breakdown, her mother turns to writing as an outlet for anger and frustration. Her mini plays, plotting the sad trajectory of her post divorce life and acted by the children, provide some very funny episodes in the book, almost a Greek Chorus ….Lizzie, however, has some mixed feelings :
‘Clever, sometimes funny and always worldly – as good as anything you saw on telly or onstage except perhaps Terence Rattigan, who didn’t do as much explaining and yet revealed so much. Our mother did rather spell things out and her characters occasionally broke the fourth wall, which I considered cheating.
This is more than just a farcical romp through the 1970s, Lizzie is a wonderful comic creation. She vocalises a child’s bewilderment at the collapse of the world around her, coupled with the casual ,although usually unintended, cruelty of adults .Lizzie serves to remind us that children are perfectly calibrated barometers of family life.
Lizzie’s voice is poignant , brave and totally authentic. My only criticism would be that she does, at times, does display a worldly knowledge beyond her supposedly 9 years.
Man At The Helm is published on 28th August. I am very grateful for the review copy from Nina Stibbe and Penguin……but I am definitely buying two more copies, one for my sister and one for another friend of my youth who I know this will speak to.