Holiday Reading – Man At The Helm

Man At The Helm is Nina Stibbe’s debut work of fiction.  Her brilliant Letters From Nina, a collection of letters she wrote to her sister in Leicester while she was the nanny/cleaner/counsellor for a family in London, was hugely popular, full of humour and charm and featuring the real life Alan Bennett.  What’s not to love?  I wrote about it for holiday reading last year, find out more here.

It was with some apprehension that I started reading Man At The Helm, I was worried I wouldn’t love it as much as Letters From Nina.  Would Stibbe be able to make me love the characters as much as I did the real life people in Letters From Nina?  What if she was good at writing about herself but not characters she had made up?

The story centres around nine year old Lizzie Vogel and her siblings who find themselves moving to a small village in the English countryside after their parents separate.  Their father had an affair with a man and not long after separating from his wife married again (another lady) and soon had a new child.  Lizzie, her older sister Debbie and their little brother Jack are left with their heartbroken mother, who throws herself into drink and writing plays which they have to act out, whilst being more or less shunned by the villagers.  This is 1970’s England and a divorcee with children is not the done thing, particularly Mrs Vogel’s type of divorcee who is beautiful, alluring to other men and not afraid to speak her mind.

Lizzie’s sister worries that without ‘a man at the helm’ the children will be taken into care so takes it upon herself and Lizzie to devise a list of potential men that could replace their father and keep them from social services.  The criteria for the list is very loose and even men who are married or simpletons make the grade.  They sweetly, and naively, go through a man at a time usually by writing a letter from their mother inviting them around on a pretence.

book cover

Man At The Helm book cover – Nina Stibbe

As Mrs Vogel is attractive almost all the men take the bait and although they may get involved with her carnally none really stick around for anything else, particularly those who are already married.  Then they meet Charlie Bates, who arrives unannounced and isn’t even on the list, and for awhile he looks like he may be the answer to their problems but all is not what it seems.

Lizzie and Debbie’s devotion to their mum is unbreakable despite her not being the greatest mum in the world.  They seem to acknowledge that fact and even make regular trips to London to get her pills from a doctor there to help with her depression.  They do most of the cooking, cleaning and laundry themselves and look out for their brother.

Throughout most of the book their mum is a difficult character to feel much sympathy for as she goes into a steady decline after the divorce.  There are some particularly mean incidents too which leave you with little time for her.  When debating whether to get her hair cut and try a new look she takes Lizzie to the hairdressers with her and gets the hairdresser to do the cut on her first to see if it will suit.  It doesn’t and poor Lizzie gets to look a mess.

The family try to be accepted by the village and join in with activities such as fetes etc but it always goes wrong and if anything the villagers don’t quite get the humour of the family.  There is a fancy dress competition where their mum comes up with ideas for costumes which they think are brilliant and a surefire way to help them be accepted into the village.  Lizzie is Miss Decimal dressed in ‘a plain white crepe-paper dress with a giant Bacofoil covered cardboard fifty pence piece stuck on to the front of it.’  Decimalization had only occurred a couple of months beforehand and they were sure this would be a winner ‘..because of our mother’s fantastic and timely decimal idea, but also its simplicity and lack of ostentation’.

Unfortunately they didn’t realise that the villagers were not a fan of decimalization and poor Lizzie’s costume was completely overlooked and the Vogels continued to be shunned by most of the village.  Lizzie did have a secret friend though, in the form of Melody Longlady, a twin, whose sister Miranda wasn’t keen on the Vogels at all.  And, throughout the book there were details of the peculiarities of childhood friendships from having to be friends in secret, bullying, jealousy and eventually respect.

Mrs Vogel becomes a more sympathetic character as the book progresses and you end up feeling quite sorry for her especially when she is duped by Charlie and the once affluent Mr Vogel runs into financial difficulties which means her source of income dries up.  She steps up to the plate though and the new ‘girl power’ Mrs Vogel is likeable, you sort of think ‘finally’ as she gets her act together.

Does Man At The Helm live up to Letters From Nina?  Definitely.  In the same way the previous book was touching and amusing, Man At The Helm is funny, sad, poignant and a brilliant read.  I can’t wait for the next one.


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