MAN AT THE HELM by Nina Stibbe

I loved Nina Stibbe’s debut, Love, Nina, and my husband said her first novel Man at the Helm, while much darker, had some of the same irreverent humor. Since he had it from the library, I decided to have a go.

It’s narrated by an adult woman recounting her childhood, but the point of view is sometimes too childish for an adult, and vice versa. A well-off family splinters with the father has an affair and the parents divorce.

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.

The mother moves to an insular village, and struggles to raise her three children. The eldest daughter decides the family won’t be taken seriously without the titular man at the helm, so she enlists her younger sister, the narrator, to help find a new dad. Alas, the pickings are slim in the village, and much disaster ensues before we arrive at a happy-ish ending.

While much is laugh-out-loud funny, as was Stibbe’s previous book, much of this is terribly sad. The tone veers so wildly that it felt more accidentally unever to me than deliberately complex. Good, but…

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