Thursday, 26 February 2015

Book Review: Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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.

Not long after her parents' separation, heralded by an awkward scene involving a wet Daily Telegraph and a pan of cold eggs, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, her sister and little brother and their now divorcee mother are packed off to a small, slightly hostile village in the English countryside. Their mother is all alone, only thirty-one years of age, with three young children and a Labrador. It is no wonder, when you put it like that, that she becomes a menace and a drunk. And a playwright.
Worried about the bad play writing - though more about becoming wards of court and being sent to the infamous Crescent Home for Children - Lizzie and her sister decide to contact, by letter, suitable men in the area. In order to stave off the local social worker they urgently need to find a new Man at the Helm.

Man At The Helm is the debut novel by Nina Stibbe and what a fantastic read it is.  A true joy to sit down and enjoy someone elses utterly British way of overcoming their trials and tribulations.  With the "riches to rags" misfortunes of the Vogel's and the understated way the Vogel girls decide their Mother needs a man at the helm.  

They are left in a house in the middle of the country with old people and married men.  The family isn't encouraged to join in with any part of village life.   No wonder their Mother turns to pills, booze and play writing and is temporarily unsuited to housework and laundry. We follow the shambolic and somewhat feral life the children lead when left to their own devices, the disaster that is their Mothers life and the "Man List" the girls create in their search for the "helmsman" including, marrieds, fiance's and the local vicar. 

This book was a pleasure to read.  I am often commuting and found myself giggling away in my seat. To be able to narrate through the eyes of a nine year old girl and keep an adult reader entertained is a great accomplishment and Nina Stibbe did it brilliantly.  This book is gem and definitely a recommended read.

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