The story is told from the point of view of Lizzie, a nine-year-old with one older sister and a younger brother, as they watch and helplessly support their mother as their lives are turned upside down following the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. They journey through the highs and lows as their previously comfortable existence explodes into a life of isolation, targeted dislike in their new home, and their mother’s descent into alcoholism and extreme, eccentric, behaviour.
This is far from a depressing read, although the underlying subject matter is bittersweet, it is also teasingly tantalising from the first paragraph to the last words.
“My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel – a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency”.
Set in 1970 the world through Lizzie’s eyes is simplistic, as well as complicated. With the help of her sister, having
concluded life would be better if there was a man at the helm, they draw up a list of possible suitors. Their naivety is as sweet as their thought processes, despite the possibility their mother is disliked because she is the new divorcée in town – and a potential threat to the other wives, they think all is fair in love and war as they add mostly married men to their list.
The girls had to grow up very fast with a mother who was mostly absent physically, emotionally, and not temperamentally suited to housework. The book follows the girls along an unusual, sometimes exciting, but mostly quirky path as they commit to their mission to invite men into their home in order to have sex with their mother. Their plans are executed, and brilliantly written, with a wonderful blend of naivety and precociousness.
All the female characters show an incredible strength and resilience throughout their journey, yet each one isn’t afraid to show their vulnerabilities. Mother and children work closely as a team, communicating their hopes and fears, as well as picking each other up when they are down. They alternate between the carer, and the being cared for, and at the same time enjoy each other’s company immensely. Despite the lack of parenting from their mother, the girls have the utmost respect for her, and have an emotional intelligence that enables them to understand, and excuse her behaviour.
None of the family are aware of the gravity of their financial situation and plod along in blissful ignorance, just about surviving and making it through each day and what the day brings them – mostly living with the rejection of the cohort of villagers. Nina weaves comedy genius, with a magic for characterisation, through her expert storytelling and will have you laughing in the aisles, barely remembering the dire straits this family is in.
From the outset the story feels timeless, but then a staggering poignant memory fills your senses as familiar experiences fill your head if you happened to be a child in the ‘70’s, with Nina’s ability to paint pictures through her historical and cultural references. Man at the Helm is a real page turner you won’t want to put down. So, make sure you have the next two books in the series ready to move on to: Paradise Lodge and Reasons
To Be Cheerful.
About Nina Stibbe
Man at the Helm is the first book in a trilogy by Nina Stibbe, winner of Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2014 National Book Awards for her first book Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life. Which in 2016 was adapted by Nick Hornby for the BBC, as Love, Nina, starring Faye Marsay in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter. This semi-fictional book revolves around the letters Nina sent home to her sister while working away as a live-in nanny. The family Nina worked for lived in a well renowned literary community with Mary-Kay Wilmers, an American editor and journalist, as her employer. Man at the Helm is Nina’s first novel, published in 2014.
Other authors to add to your list if you enjoy Man at the Helm, Nora Ephron (Heartburn), Zadie Smith (NW), Sally Rooney (Normal People), Anne Tyler (Clock Dance), Lissa Evans (Old Baggage).