Nina Stibbe has a way with children. Her first book, a memoir, was a deceptively wide-eyed view of a literary Hampstead family observed in all its turbulence by the teenage Stibbe, working as the nanny. Written as letters home to her sister, Love, Nina won over fellow writers and critics; reviews spoke of a quirky, life-affirming comic genius.
Now she’s written her first novel, and again she has the domestic arena in her sights. Man at the Helm is a wicked anatomising of a dysfunctional family seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old narrator.
Think What Maisie Knew with laughs and four-letter words, plus a touch of The Young Visiters — baroque formality undermined by an engagingly frank view of sex. Henry James meets Daisy Ashford.
When adults behave like children, the kids grow up fast, and Stibbe doesn’t shirk the destructive effects of parental negligence: Lizzie Vogel, her sister, aged 11, and little brother, enjoy a blissfully privileged life until one evening in 1970 their mother listens in to her husband’s telephone. Cue domestic mayhem. The affluent lifestyle — housekeeper, chauffeur, nanny — is swapped for an unpredictable world. Their mother breaks the news:
‘I want this to be as painless as possible,’ she said, soothingly. ‘Your father and I have decided to split up and get a divorce.’
But the mood changed when my sister accidentally murmured, ‘Poor Daddy.’ And our Mother erupted: ‘Poor Daddy? Poor Daddy is over the fucking moon.’
Daddy sends the chauffeur in the Daimler to pick up his things, and the family, plus labrador, are packed off to a village in the country — where a scatty divorcée and precocious brood are conspicuously unwelcome. Before long the elegant 31-year-old has become, as Lizzie’s sister puts it, ‘a menace and a drunk’, scribbling surreal dramatisations of her life — each a few lines — which she dubs ‘Plays’.
The girls realise a lone female without a man at the helm will be shunned until there’s a replacement. They draw up a list of possible men — village doctor, builder, schoolteacher,vicar — and forge letters from their mother inviting them round for a drink. They hope the visits will lead to ‘sexual intercourse and possibly marriage’.The men duly turn up and are dazzled.
Stibbe’s world is buoyantly comic: farcical yet tender; rude, with a forgiving sweetness. Mother, in an absent-minded way, manages to have sex with most of the men on the list before she falls for a cowboy plumber who briskly fleeces her of all she has. Dark days follow: food and money run out, and on a whim she finds a job driving a laundry van, collecting dirty linen, the children clinging to a semblance of normality in a world where security has been replaced by chaos.
Today the girls would be on Facebook or Twitter; Mumsnet would offer support. The 1970s consigned them to isolation. But it’s the children, bright and ingenious, who are at the helm; they survive relatively unscarred to a happy-ish ending.
Stibbe calls the book semi-autobiographical, about her mother’s ‘unorthodox style of parenting’. It’s fiction, but for this reader, who experienced maternal ‘unorthodoxy’ along similar lines, it has a ring of truth.