set in the 1970s
[The village garden party]
Eventually it was the idea of seeing Debbie in the dog show that appealed to our mother, and she went to her room to get ready and reappeared in a flimsy dress whose pattern could have been the dancing shadows of a wind-blown tree - but might equally have been a coffee stain. She’d taken to wearing hats in public and that day wore a floppy one to suit the dress. And sandals which were so flimsy it was as though there was no sandal at all, only a thin leather string looping her big toe and heel. She looked a dream…
Our mother looked so pretty with loops of soft hair falling around her bare shoulders. Her sleepy green eyes looking so unusual and big under the floppy hat. She was by far the best-looking woman at the show – the pill-induced wooziness, and the light shapes in the dress pattern which moved like fluffy clouds in the summer sky, all added to the general effect.
observations: This is the book with the strange history. Nina Stibbe worked as a nanny in the 1980s for Mary Kay Wilmers, a key London literary figure, and wrote to her sister several times a week. Her sister happened to keep the letters; they were rediscovered recently; and the collection was turned into a book – not this one, a book called Love, Nina. I loved that book beyond words – I’ve read it 3 times in 6 months, and imagine I will be re-reading it forever: it is charming, real, affecting, and deliriously funny. Important figures such as Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Stephen Frears flit through the pages; Nina decides to pursue her studies; moves out, moves back in again; thinks about boyfriends and hairstyles. We glimpse the children she looks after, and her own family, and her boss.
Everyone who loved it must have had the same reaction to the news that Nina Stibbe had written a novel: anxiety to get hold of it and read it as soon as possible, and a terrible unspoken fear that it wouldn’t be any good, that it was only being published because of the success of the first book. In fact it is terrific, very readable and funny, but also very strange. It probably IS only published because of the first one, but that raises questions about the way publishing works rather than over Nina Stibbe’s talents.
Anyway, it seems to be worryingly autobiographical (what does her mother think?) - her pony has the same name and she likes the same deodorant in both the fiction and non-fiction. Man at the Helm has a 9-year-old narrator, Lizzie. Her parents are getting divorced, and she and two siblings (one, her older sister, remains unnamed through the whole book for no apparent reason) and their mother are moving to a small village in the 1970s. Here they are not made at all welcome: they are strange, too rich (apparently, though not in fact), and ‘feral and manless’. The mother is not coping at all well and lives on pills, alcohol and cigarettes. The young girls decide she needs to find another man, and the book outlines their attempts.
This probably sounds a lot softer and twee-er than it actually is: all the time you are laughing at the farcical situations arising from this, you are also wincing at the likelihood that it was all too real, and not that much fun to live through. The 1970s atmosphere is really well-done, and child protection wasn’t such a big deal then, so some of the strange things the girls get up to are acceptable – like going off to London to persuade a doctor to give their mother more prescription drugs. The mother is plainly in a very bad place, and is not looking after the children very well at all. By the age of 11, Lizzie is spending her dinner money on cigarettes. The book is simultaneously bleak, jaunty and desolating in a way that I simply have never come across before, but it’s so funny and clever that Nina Stibbe gets away with it. It will be interesting to see what she writes next.
The pictures are from a 1970s fashion magazine.