Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very enjoyable domestic tale, with children in the early 1970s considering any and all potential suitors for their newly-divorced mother.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780241003152

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What's that about treating an ending purely as another beginning? When the marriage of Elizabeth's parents ends, the foursome of Lizzie, her older (and wiser beyond her years) sister and kid brother and the mum move to a Leicestershire village to begin again. But things don't start swimmingly – the entire village seems to turn against them and maintain their outsider status. Thinking this down to the D-notice put on their parents (for divorce means a woman being unacceptably short of trustworthiness in the early 1970s) the girls put their efforts into match-making. Little do they realise the lack of options they face – and the life-changing events that arise when they witness a glimmer of success…

This is a novel that can treat the subject matter – which would probably make a feminist's blood boil – with a light-hearted honesty and truthfulness. It's all about the style – Lizzie's narration, while slipping in hints here and there that all this is reported from some distance in the future (ie closer to our own time) is brilliant at personifying the innocence of the desperate girls. There's a very light touch in harking back to the 1970s – with Nesquik and Club biscuit suppers, and certain cars of the vintage, and fuel being, ahem, costly in the new decimal age, but the circumstance is pretty much timeless, and the immediacy of the writing brings Lizzie and all the events to us wonderfully.

In fact it's a very summery read – the Halcyon days spent in the village, with a gathering spread of pets and a middling list of potential new step-fathers. Once again this is underscored by the only very mildly naïve pair of sisters, and is only reinforced by the level of humour throughout. Just as this is 70s-based but only on a small, intelligent scale, so all the characters are quirky, but on a small, intelligent scale. A weaker author would have broadened the mother into a monster – and yes, she might appear such in summary, with her pill-popping and whisky drinking, and the fact that all she engages with is rewriting her life story as a stage play for the family to perform in. The overly-smart sister and the wacky boy (who is sure to delight the many who will recognise the Leicester in these pages by parading round Fenwick's department store pretending to be a dog to make his point) are too richly written to be stereotypes.

And then of course there is Lizzie. Yes, there is a help to the value of the book in that she would have been unaware of feminism while thinking the family and her mother lacked something vital, but she is going to win a lot of people over. She's a real conversationalist, engagingly talking to us about the whole saga in such a way that you don't mind when her story quotes the phrase of the title so often – noticeably more than many another book would. She's a great invention – or transposed version of our author, who also was growing up in Leicestershire in the 1970s – and while I doubt her second book will be about her pony as promised here, I could easily see her life travails forming part of an ongoing series. This is a friendly, warm read, with just the right amount of seriousness in amongst the levity, and an approach built to please all-comers and capable of providing it with the huge audience it deserves.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe was also written about a period of time different to when it appeared – being the author's very individualistic letters back home from her first nannying job in literary London. For a very different look at a family in a country house, way back in the last century, you might enjoy Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray.

Buy Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe at Amazon You could get a free audio download of Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe at Amazon.com.


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