Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe / Women and Comic Fiction

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When I first heard an extract of Nina Stibbe’s wonderful new novel Man At The Helmread by the author herself at the Annual Penguin Bloggers Evening back in March of this year, I breathed an audible sigh of relief (and stifled numerous giggles and guffaws, I was sitting right at the front after all and was trying to look serious and intellectual, naturally) Finally, here was a woman brave enough to write something unashamedly funny, searingly honest and entirely English. Here was a woman who wasn’t worried about her first novel not being taken seriously enough, or not attracting Prize nominations or in-depth TLS reviews. Here was a woman writing based on personal experience, writing the only way she knew how – and the result is a fantastically funny, poignant and memorable first novel.

The novel opens in 1970 on the eve that Mrs. Vogel, 31-year old mother to Lizzie (our narrator) her older sister and younger brother Jack, discovers that her husband has been having an affair. The father leaves and the Vogels are dispatched to a small and ‘hostile’ village, along with their labrador Debbie. Mrs. Vogel, classic seventies bohemian, heavy drinker and fledgling playwright (and often reluctant mother), finds herself in an increasingly desperate situation. Her two precocious and sensitive daughters set about finding a new ‘man at the helm,’ by shortlisting all available men and working their way through the various options, often with hilarious and unexpected consequences.

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Stibbe’s writing reminded me instantly of Nancy Mitford – it has that same superficial lightness that is often used to mask a much greater depth of feeling or a darker subject matter. Olivia Laing called it a ‘bright, brittle tone’ when reviewing The Pursuit of Love – similarly, Man At The Helm never descends into sentimentality, self-pity or despair (despite including numerous situations where any or all of those three reactions would be perfectly reasonable) – our narrator (11-year-old Lizzie) views everything with perfect clarity and is never afraid to voice her opinion, often scathing and usually on subjects well beyond her years. As with Nancy Mitford, the characters display a particularly english tenacity, the make-do-and-mend coping mechanism which is inherent in all of Mitford’s young characters is employed by the three children in this novel; they rarely complain, even when they find themselves responsible for the washing, cleaning and cooking; in fact, it makes them more determined to find that heroic ‘man at the helm’ who will take control of the situation and solve their mothers long-term unhappiness.

Here are some of my favourite extracts:

At the time of her separation from our father, our mother had experienced only one success in her whole life. Just one, and it had been the writing of a play entitled The Planet when she was sixteen years old. She’d thought it up and written it by herself and then entered it into a competition. She’d won first prize and the play had been put on at a theatre in one of the universities and acted out for a whole week by drama students (that was the prize).

Our mother hadn’t enjoyed writing the play that much and, in spit of the exciting title, the subject had been mundane and gloomy (her words) but, by coincidence, mundane and gloomy plays were all the rage then and the judges had been overwhelmed by her maturity and insight. And though a gloomy mood pervaded the play, she enjoyed all the attention of people saying she was a genius at writing plays and brilliant at dialogue and structure etc.

Therefore, as time marched on and her life was just a long grey smear with no relief – only staring at flames, giving birth and drinking whiskey – she would often try to recreate that time of recognition and acknowledgement. After our father left, play-writing became a daily thing. And it was mostly just the long, ongoing play of her life with snippets expanded, exaggerated, explained or remedied. The Play. Occasionally she might write a classical version or a poem, but it was essentially the same story. Hers.

Here is a description of Lizzie’s maternal grandmother, who we never encounter (thankfully!)

a prickly woman, as previously mentioned – who seemed to like making people feel bad about themselves, which was easy with my mother who had failed at marriage, had two abortions and a miscarriage, a drink problem, an addiction to prescription drugs and who, for some reason I can’t explain had a habit of storing stemware upside down in the cupboard – a thing which always infuriates the well-bred.

And her mother, in a nutshell;

She disliked food (the eating of it) and had stopped cooking and she hated telly. She only really liked rugged men, whisky and ginger ale, poetry (especially love poems, annoyingly), Shakespeare plays and sunbathing. And here we were, two girls, both poetry haters and not inclined to drink.

Lizzie’s early female relationships are strained with the introduction of accessories;

It was nothing to do with our not being neighbours any longer, but my early grapplings with the semantics of fashion accessories coincided with Melody’s handbag-usage phase (and her wearing of a beady necklace which she claimed played down a veiny sternum). Somehow the handbags and beads signalled she wasn’t going to shape up as a friend. The final straw (metaphorically speaking) was a fabric bucket with bamboo hoops for handles, which Melody suddenly had with her at all times. What made me most sick about it was her habit (out of necessity) of frequently saying to me, ‘Can you just hold my bag a moment?’

This was because she couldn’t perform any two-handed task while holding it, due to the hoops being too small in circumference to be slipped up on to the shoulder. So, time after time, I’d be left holding it while she fiddled with her shoelace or gate latch. It wasn’t as if the bag ever had anything worth carrying in it either, such as a Wagon Wheel or a penknife. I could tell this by the weight – it was, for all its stupid bucket-size, light as a feather. It was, like so many women’s things, like a clumsy prop for a fancy-dress costume.

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So as you can see, this is true laugh-out-loud, intelligent, often caustic and unrelenting comedy. It made me realise how few women are writing comic fiction these days. You could be forgiven for thinking this was written during the golden age of Virago – part of the Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, Monica Dickens, Barbara Comyns generation. Stibbe’s writing reminded me of all of these great British writers at one time or another, many of whom have been rereleased within the past 5-10 years with fresh new jackets and to great critical acclaim. So there is clearly an appetite for intelligent, funny fiction from women but there are very few women writing it, particularly among the younger generation. There was a second-wave of female comic fiction writers who reached the height of their powers in the 80s and early 90s – Nora Ephron, Sue Townsend, Jilly Cooper, Helen Fielding, Julie Burchill etc but it is hard to see which young writers are coming forward to replace them. If you think of our most successful young female fiction writers; Zadie Smith, Eleanor Catton, Evie Wyld, Eimear McBride – none of them are writing comedy.  And those who are; Caitlin Moran, Bryony Gordon, Sloane Crossley are keeping it autobiographical or like Sophie Kinsella, Lauren Wiesberger, Marian Keyes – aiming it squarely at the chick-lit market. Perhaps women writers, particularly debut writers, still feel that they have a lot to prove and may feel that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a literary writer if they turned in a purely comic novel. It was very telling that when I went to see Lorrie Moore at the Southbank earlier this year, somebody asked the question of whether she viewed herself as part of the canon of comic fiction and she responded by saying that she would never want to be seen as a ‘solely comic writer’ as it has the potential to lessen the impact of your writing, to simplify it and to somehow make it less serious. She didn’t mind comedy being an aspect of her writing but she didn’t want it to be the single lasting impression on a reader.

Obviously we are seeing some exceptions to this; Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out is a sophisticated and hilarious meditation on modern life and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals has been called ‘Withnail with Girls’ by Caitlin Moran. However there are many more from male writers vying to take the Kingsley Amis role in modern literature; Joe Dunthorne, Ben Masters, Chris Killen, Simon Wroe, Joe Stretch, Sam Byers, Ben Brooks. I would love to see more young, funny women coming through and hopefully Nina Stibbe will inspire them to overcome their literary reservations and pursue the comedy that can be found in everyday life.

Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe is released this Thursday 28th August.

Thank you to the good people at Penguin for my review copy