When Love Nina came out a few years ago, I thought it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. Nina Stibbe was a young girl from Leicester who’d come down to London to become a nanny. The book is made up of letters sent home describing the goings on the Gloucester Place household. Stibbe was working in the household of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and she had a plethora of interesting guests and goings on, as Stibbe becomes to become more aware of the world around her. “Faux naif” would be the wrong way to describe it, because Stibbe absolutely isn’t “faux.”
The book was something of a sensation, and there was even a pretty decent BBC One version made with Faye Marsay and Helena Bonham Carter. Stibbe’s writing career took off and she’s since had a few books published.
Now I have to make an admission. I can be a little like a butterfly when it comes to books, and even something I’m enjoying can be cast aside because there’s something else even more urgent that I simply have to read this instant.
For some reason, that became the case with Man at the Helm, Stibbe’s follow-up novel. Ahead of an upcoming new novel, I picked this back up recently and started afresh. Indeed, I fairly raced through it.
Although this time the book was fiction, I suspect that there are more than one elements of truth in this book. Lizzie is our narrator, and she lives with her sister and younger brother with their mother in a small Leicester village. Her mother is newly divorced, with their father having recently decided he was gay, and a split subsequently happening. The family has moved into a large house in the village, but they are not immediately accepted. A single mother is not someone to move in polite society.
The two daughters decide that the solution is to find a man to take the helm of the household. They draw up a shortlist of suitable nearby men, and begin their matchmaking process.
The book is shot through with humour, with the girls often landing themselves in trouble. The seventies setting is beautifully drawn and certainly feel accurate and of its time. Stibbe has a wicked ear – capturing the kinds of things that sound frankly ridiculous to 21st century ears. Did she keep a diary in her younger years too?
The girls’ mother is a great character. There are scattered excerpt of “plays” that she keeps writing as an outlet of her frustrations – the plays invariably featuring Roderick and Adele discussing the most menial of things.
Paradise Lodge is a direct sequel to Man at the Helm, although you can happily read one without the other. Lizzie is a little older now, having reached her teenage years. She’s not doing fantastically at school to the dismay of her teachers, but she decides to take a job with her best friend at the local old people’s home, Paradise Lodge.
The home seems to be something of a ramshackle affair, run by a man who’s singularly unsuitable to be running such a place. But this also means that the cast of characters who inhabit the place are enormous fun.
The book is great fun, and the naivety of our heroine is again deliciously served.