Saturday, May 23, 2015

Man At The Helm

Man at the Helm / Nina Stibbe
London: Viking, c2014.
310 p.

Lizzie Vogel, middle child of 3, narrates this clear-eyed, comic tale of family dysfunction. It’s 1970, and Lizzie’s mother has just overheard a phone conversation that results in the break-up of her marriage. She takes her 3 children and old dog, and moves from their comfortable suburban English home to a small and self-contained village. As a divorcée, she and her children are outsiders from the start.

To regain some social status, and to avoid any dreaded visit from a social worker, Lizzie and her older sister come up with The Man List. It’s a working document of possible eligible men to test out – basically any man at all in their village; unmarried, financially secure, handsome… or not. 

They send letters (impersonating their mother) inviting these men to tea, one by one, in hopes that someone will stick. Among various setbacks and crises -- pet ponies in the house, a younger brother who mysteriously goes deaf when he closes his eyes, neighbouring twin sisters who target the Vogels, domestic disasters when Lizzie tries to do housework, and lots and lots of money trouble -- they persevere.

When things go really wrong, their mother finally perks up. She gets a job, moves them into an even smaller house, and begins to make things happen. At this point, when they no longer need a “Man at the Helm” to keep them going, Lizzie is about to bin the list. But then they add just one more name…

For reasons clear to those who know me, I really like stories told by middle children ;) But beyond that, I really liked this tale. The narrative voice is a mix of childishness and cynicism that is rather unique to the British. While the story is a little episodic, it carries throughout a sense of the longings of unsettled children for a peaceful, safe childhood. It also feels very 70s in the freedom that these children have to operate on their own (unthinkable now) and in the way their mother smokes and drinks and seduces various men, all matter of course. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek and altogether entertaining.

This is a quick-moving, darkly funny tale of a family in transition. Along with humour and satire, there are also wonderful moments of connection and a sense of hope amidst difficult circumstances. It relies heavily on its setting, so if you enjoy a British sensibility and are interested in a young woman’s voice telling it like it is (or was), you may just love this one.

(a briefer version of this review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette, May 20, 2015)


Further Reading:

This book is reminiscent of Nina Bawden's A Little Love, A Little Learning. In that story, middle child Kate  relates a child's experience of the adult world. She tells us about their family life after their mother has left their father, and they've muddled along alone for a while, until finding them a stepfather. It's sharp and ironic as well.

If you like this author's voice, try her first book, a memoir in letters entitled Love, Nina. You will enjoy a true-to-life story that reveals a young and rather culturally naive girl working as a nanny in the 80s, and encountering famous British writers (sometimes unwittingly) -- then writing home about it. It is charming.


  1. I love the British narrative voice. And she's written an epistolary novel, too? I am so looking for both of these books to read this summer! Thanks so much for the rec. :)

    1. Lark, I think you would definitely enjoy both of Stibbe's books. The epistolary one is an actual memoir, though, not fiction, fyi -- in case that changes your mind.

    2. It doesn't. In fact, it kind of makes me want to read it more. :)

  2. I hadn't heard of this author before today. This sounds like a book I'd really enjoy. Lovely review, Melwyk.

    1. I first noticed her when her memoir was published but have finally got my hands on this new novel :)


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