Title: Man at the Helm
Author: Nina Stibbe
A big, brightly-coloured book, with a title that sounds suspiciously like it’s from a romance novel, and cosy domestic-looking jam tarts on the front cover. It doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, does it? I wouldn’t have thought so either, but I still pre-ordered the novel, something I never do. The thing is, I went to the Penguin Bloggers’ Night, where the author read from her book. She was wonderful, and was either genuinely interested in my (ongoing & currently in crisis) PhD or was extremely good at acting. People who are willing to pretend interest in a 75, 000-word document about skin, all in order to promote a book, must have a stellar book to promote. That was my feeling. So I got home & pre-ordered it, more because I wanted to support the author than because comfy domestic fiction about the 1970s is my natural preference. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this book is very far from being comfy domestic fiction about the 1970s. It’s full of young carers, surly farmers with shotguns, and quite a lot of drug abuse. The cosiness of the jam tarts is misleading. This brilliant debut novel made me laugh, made me absolutely livid with anger, and then, quite unexpectedly, made me cry buckets.
Before I progress any further with this review, I should probably make it clear that I am far less objective about the subject matter of Man at the Helm than generally. As I read this book, I am a professional with significant child protection responsibilities in my day job, and also the daughter of a family that went through a crisis and came out somewhat fractured on the other side. I was a (kind of) young (sort of) carer for a while before I left home, and many of the topics addressed in the book are therefore rather close and personal in one way or another.
First things first, though. The novel is narrated by Lizzie Vogel, who moves to the countryside with her mother and siblings at the age of nine. The move is precipitated by her father having an affair with “Phil from the factory” and the subsequent breakdown of her parents’ marriage. When they arrive in the country, they realise that they are going to be ostracised because of their mother’s divorcée status, so the children set about finding her a new husband.
I think that Lizzie’s narrative voice is one of the most effective things about the whole novel. Every sentence rings true as something that might be said by a nine-year-old, and it’s just a wonderful storytelling device. That voice simultaneously means that you have to read between the lines to see the bleakness of what’s going on, because there are descriptions of events that nine-year-old Lizzie only half understands, yet it also highlights that very bleakness, simply because of the contrast to the type of tale that is normally narrated by children. The episodic nature of the storytelling is perfect, because that is the way children think. A more structured and intentional-looking plot would not ring true, because most children do not constantly think of themselves as on a purposeful journey—they address each day as it comes. It also allows for the interjection of humorous scenes and anecdotes, without affecting the more serious tone of the overall story.
Until the closing chapters, this book was going to get a solid 3/5 from me. I was furious with every adult in the book–and, moreover, frustrated with the implication that all adults are always useless. It’s one thing to create incompetent characters, and quite another to suggest that everyone is incompetent. The children are desperate to avoid Crescent Homes, but there are plenty of occasions where any sensible professional could have seen that they would have been better off out of their mother’s care for a while. She is drunk, drugged, and grossly incapable in charge of three young children. For the majority of the book, the reader doesn’t even really get the feeling that the mother loves her children–the only time she interacts with them is when she wants them to do something for her. Buy drugs, for example. I have a lot of empathy for people with depression and other mental health problems, but I don’t think I will ever be okay with a parent sending their children off to go and buy semi-legal drugs.
The adults in Lizzie’s life who ought to be responsible instead turn a collective blind eye to the neglect she and her siblings are suffering. At one point, Lizzie even goes to the family doctor for advice, and instead of intervening and helping, he tells her—a nine-year-old child—to start making sure everyone in the family gets fed every day. I was fuming. In a way, that is a testament to Stibbe’s excellent narration; if I hadn’t cared, when the subject is so close to my heart, it would mean something was wrong with the writing, or with me. However, it also caused me issues with suspension of disbelief. In the lives of every family I’ve ever worked with, there has always been at least one reasonably capable adult around who was trying to help. Some of them are terrible at it, and some are fantastic, but all are trying. Sometimes a teacher, sometimes a neighbour, sometimes just the couple that runs the local corner shop, but there is always someone. I found it extraordinarily difficult to accept that no-one in the village cared about the children. Perhaps that’s just a sign that I wasn’t around in the 70s and therefore can’t gauge how much attitudes have changed, but it didn’t ring quite true that three extremely neglected children were simply left to bring themselves up.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the final chapters of the book were absolutely glorious. Without wishing to give away spoilers, I think it’s reasonable to say that there is a catalytic crisis point. There is just a touch of foreshadowing in the previous chapters, but not enough to give the game away. I found myself thinking, as I read it, I didn’t realise it was going to get this bad. At the same time, it’s not unbelievable: given some of the unfortunate decisions that the mother has made, along with some of the things that have been done to her that she’s had no control over, it’s entirely possible to believe that she might have found herself in such a bad position. She reacts to it heroically–that is, doing the absolute best that she can with the little she has, which is what heroism is–and from that point the book suddenly turned a corner for me.
Interestingly, improvements in the family situation come alongside further changes. Circumstances mean that they are forced to move house, and their income begins to dry up. As the family is no longer really relying on the father’s financial input, so they no longer rely on him for their identity. First they were his wife and children, then they were his rejected wife and unwelcome children, but with the waning of his involvement they seem to become more of a unit—the physical change, the downsizing, reflects this social change. They begin to define themselves as a smaller family separate from the tragedy, defined neither by the presence nor the absence of a man at the helm, yet not losing sight of everything that has brought them to that point. This is when it made me cry, just when I wasn’t expecting it to: the family goes out for the day, and it’s just a normal nice family day out, just a mum and her kids spending time together and enjoying themselves. Lizzie comments that she knew, then, that they were beginning to recover (without Dad), and I remembered when I knew that we were beginning to recover (without Dad)—such a unwelcome and reassuring and guilt-inducing feeling, and Stibbe captured it so very well. And I cried.
To sum up… I was rewatching Lilo and Stitch the day before I wrote this post, and I was struck by the respectful way it treats unconventional or difficult family environments. In the end, Stitch said it best, for me and for Lizzie Vogel and for all the other children from homes that have somehow become complicated.
Yeah, still good.