A couple of years ago I wrote a rave review about Love, Nina and I’ve been keen to read more by Nina Stibbe ever since.
Man at the Helm was also right up my street. With a similar tone to her first book, Stibbe has not lost her natural and laid-back writing style. This fits in well with the voice of the narrator, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, who is based on the real life nine-year-old Stibbe.
We are introduced to Lizzie’s dysfunctional family one morning over an unhappy breakfast that ends with her parents violently struggling on the kitchen floor. This is quite a traumatic scene for three children to witness, especially when “…his great white hands circled her neck…” but young Lizzie isn’t phased and wishes for her mother to “throw him off judo-style, and tread on his throat…”. And the book carries on as it begins, with brutally honest descriptions of life after a family break-up and often wildly inappropriate solutions thought up by Lizzie and her sister.
When Lizzie moves with her mum and two siblings to a small village, they are immediately rejected by the community. Lizzie’s wise sister says “if a lone female is left, especially if divorced, without a man at the helm, all the friends and family acquaintances run away” and “…when a new man at the helm is in place, the woman is accepted once again.” And so the sisters hatch a plan to find a man at the helm. They start a list of possible candidates, including a few married men, and get to work trying to match-make.
Man at the Helm doesn’t shy away from the pain and suffering of a family split. There are heart-wrenching moments such as when Lizzie and her sister pretend they have all been invited to join relatives on holiday, only to be met with confusion and awkward embarrassment when they arrive after a long drive. Stories like this can’t simply be shrugged off and made light of but Stibbe does have a knack for seeing the funny side or simply accepting the situation. These qualities are also apparent in Lizzie and her sister who remain pragmatic and resourceful throughout the book.
I was fully expecting this book to be hilarious (and wasn’t disappointed) but it was a pleasant surprise to also find it poignant and heart-warming. It ends on a hopeful note, leaving the reader feeling safe in the knowledge that tough times can eventually come to an end.
I’m now eager to get my hands on Paradise Lodge. Lizzie Vogel will be back as narrator, this time getting into scrapes while working in a nursing home.
Does Man at the Helm sound like your sort of thing? Buy it by clicking on the picture below!