This books is definitely one of the funniest I have read this year. As someone who hasn’t read Love, Nina this was my first introduction to Nina Stibbe’s work and I have to admit I was slightly worried. Children finding a man for their mum? Would I really enjoy that? But I gave it ago and found that I couldn’t put it down.
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 divorcée 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 playwriting – 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 narrated by Lizzie and I think this is the first time where an adult book narrated by a child hasn’t made me roll my eyes or scoff at some of the situations. I believed Lizzie and I believed the things that happened in the book and that is down to Nine Stibbe’s brilliant writing. Lizzie is a mixture of wise innocence without being annoyingly precocious or know-it-all (thankfully). I fell in love with her and her sister and her brother as they tried to find a suitable man for their mother. No matter how much I loved Lizzie, Mrs Vogel (or Ma Vogel as I called her for some strange reason in my head) is definitely my favourite character. She is the kind of woman who wasn’t made for laundry or housework and through Nina Stibbe she was utterly relatable because of her loneliness and isolation from their new village.
The desperate situation the family find themselves in is contrasted hilariously with some of Lizzie’s observations. There is a particular passage with a Vicar that had me chortling on the tube (what a great word chortle is). So much of the humour came from the Vogels moving to their new home and I loved these scenes because the Vogels were very clever, partly sad fish out of water trying to fit into a village where people Like Them don’t really belong.
I had the chance to meet Nina Stibbe a little while ago and she told me that there is going to be a sequel to Man at the Helm (hopefully this doesn’t change) and I am so excited about that! This book is poignant, very fully, and utterly charming. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker and I urge you all to pick it up and have a read.