Book Review: Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe


This book came to me via the wonderful Books on the Underground.  I was very pleased that it did.  I had previously heard Nina Stibbe talk about this book at an event I’d attended and thoroughly enjoyed her previous book ‘Love Nina’ as reviewed on these very pages.

Man at the Helm is  a semi autobiographical debut novel.  This is the story of the Vogel family as told through they voice of 9 year old Lizzie Vogel.  Lizzie’s parents divorce after Lizzie’s dad has a fling with a man called Phil.  The book opens with a typically comic slightly unnerving scene.  Lizzie’s parents are involved in a physical scuffle on the kitchen floor involving fried eggs and a wet Daily Telegraph. Mr Vogel then swiftly moves out of the family home leaving his chauffeur Bernard to collect his painting of a gun dog, his assorted hair brushes and the toaster.

When Lizzie and her siblings realise their parents aren’t about to get back together they set themselves the task of finding another man to take the helm.  As Mrs Vogel becomes ‘a menace and a drunk’ and immerses herself in whisky and play writing her children draw up a list of possible men to take the helm.  The Man List is born and includes candidates such as The coalman, a Liberal candidate and  a posh farmer.

“we decide we’d contact, by letter, the suitable men in the area and invite them to have a drink with her and hope that it would lead to sexual intercourse and possibly marriage.  Obviously one at a time.  My sister asked me to name the top three qualities I’d look for in a husband.  It was difficult because I knew so little about men, only really that they loved fires and omelettes and needed constant snacks”

This is such a warm and funny novel despite the situation the family find themselves in.  They slip from a life of privilege, grandeur  and ponies to life on an estate with a broken washing machine and a bare larder.  The children care for their mother and present a united front as they all adapt to this new situation.

Although this didn’t have me laughing out loud in the way that ‘Love Nina’ did I enjoyed it immensely.  I loved Lizzie Vogel’s voice and perspective on life.  She is an optimistic, positive character,  anxious to please  but touchingly vulnerable.  This is especially  clear the day she wakes with a ‘heavy weight’ that leads to a day of uncontrolled and unexplained crying.  Lizzie’s mother is reassuringly understanding of this.

“I woke up with a great weight on me” I said

“Oh the weight”said our mother suddenly understanding.  “It’s the pig”

“The Pig?” I said

“its about a pig kind of weight isn’t it?”

“Yes it is, a young one,” I said, “a young pig”

“The pig arrives when ones feeling fed up.  He turns up first thing in the morning and pins you to the bed”

“Why?” I said

“To make you think , to make you cry and to make you see, ” she said “and when he visits, he’s just trying to help.  You must make him welcome and he’ll soon be gone”.

This is a fun book and if you like a books with humour and some underlying sentiment and seriousness then this is for you.  Nina Stibbe has a unique voice and although I appreciate this voice may not be to everyones taste, it’s a voice I would heartily recommend seeking out.

So now all that remains is for me to release my copy of ‘Man at the Helm’ back onto the London Underground System, hoping that the next person to pick it up enjoys it as much as I have.

image via Changing-pages


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