August book club:Man at the Helm

This is the first, strongly autobiographical novel by the author of ‘Love, Nina.’ It’s a darkly comic novel about a newly divorced 31 year old mother, her three children and their Labrador thrown into life in a quiet Leicestershire village. Alone, rejected by her husband and the villagers, the children’s mother turns to drink, prescription medication and playwriting.  The two daughters decide that the reason for their mother’s decline is because in their family there is no longer a man at the helm. It becomes imperative that they find one and they make a list of the possible suitors in the village and write letters as though from there mother inviting them on a pretext of needing their help. The girls hope that this ‘help’ will lead to sex and possibly marriage, thus returning a man to the helm, making their family socially acceptable and saving the children from becoming wards of court.

Comedy, in novels, is always a matter of taste. This one was not to mine, though I understand why it is described as a winner by the Guardian newspaper. The children’s family falls apart as their father has an affair with another man and they leave a life of affluence, with a nanny and maid of all work, to live in a substantive house in a village, with a paddock and ponies. As this story is told from the point of view of the children, there is little reflection on how the villagers feel about affluent outsiders, instead, the locals are reduced to short comic turns. Mainly as the wives of husbands with whom their mother has had a brief affair. The comedy is dark. Their mother is ‘temporarily unsuited’ to housework and the girls attempt to take on the washing and ironing, with mildly disastrous results. Though this is funny, it is also tragic. The children are not fed, the youngest boy develops a stammer, the girls are sent to London on the train to illegally procure pills for their mother and there is no one to support them. Stibbe moves across these events with a lightness of touch though I felt at times it was too light, for example, when her mother has an abortion. For this to be really comic, it needed to just reveal enough of the darkness, to know this is not all a jolly jape but real things happening to real people. The only time Stibbe comes close to this is around an accident that befalls the dog but perhaps that is just a very British sentiment!

I suspect this book will be a hit as it is an easy read for a summer evening. Ultimately, things do come together for the family in a strange way and they find a measure of happiness in life without a man at the helm. For me, it would be a 3/5, but I know others in my book club will find it hilarious. 

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