Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: Viking (August 2014)
Selected by Mary Mount
“One of the funniest new writers to emerge in Britain in recent years. This writer makes me laugh and laugh and laugh, but there is always an undercurrent of pain beneath the laughter.” —Mary Mount
Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, a collection of letters from the young Stibbe to her sister, was a publishing sensation. In the early 1980s, Stibbe was a nanny to the two sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the co-founder of the London Review of Books, and her missives about the family showed an ear for dialogue and fine comic timing. Man at the Helm is Stibbe’s first novel, an autobiographical look back at her childhood. It describes the author’s attempt to find a man for her recently divorced mother, who in turn uses the material from her life as dialogue for her own writing.
Part I: A Menace and a Drunk
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 our mother listened in to our 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 following morning she took a pan of eggs from the lit stove and flung it over our father as he sat behind his paper at the breakfast table. He screamed like a girl – expecting it to be hot – and fell off his chair. It wasn’t hot (she wasn’t insane). He remained on the floor for a few moments until we all looked away, which we did out of decency. Then he went towards the coffee. Before he could lift the pot, our mother launched herself at him and, slipping on shards of wet Daily Telegraph, they both went down and began rolling around in the mess. It seemed mild enough to begin with, and quite playgroundy, until his great white hands circled her neck and one of her shoes came off as it might in a murder or fairy tale. I willed her to throw him off, judo-style, and tread on his throat with the remaining shoe, but in the end Mrs Lunt had to intervene and prise his fingers apart.
And then by coincidence it was 8.30 and our father’s driver (Bernard, who lived in a chalet on the grounds) tooted outside in the Daimler and took him away to the office – furious, with scruffed-up hair and a wet shirt. Our mother smoothed herself down with her hands and poured a Scotch and ginger ale. She didn’t come to the breakfast table; she didn’t smile or cry or exchange looks with us, but instead stood at the sideboard, thinking, in a world of her own and in the one shoe.
We had tea biscuits for breakfast, everything else having been caught up in the riot (Mrs Lunt’s words). In those days you didn’t have endless supplies in the larder. You got it in daily. Mrs Lunt did.
As I say, our mother stood leaning on the sideboard thinking, and after swallowing down her drink she visibly had an idea and rushed into the hall. We heard her dialling the telephone and, because of everything that had gone on, we all listened intently, wondering whom she might suddenly want to speak to. Mrs Lunt didn’t babble to shield us or protect our mother’s privacy but froze with an ear to the doorway. She even put a finger to her lips.
I thought it might be the police or this man called Phil. But actually she just cancelled the coal.
“So, that’s it, then,” she said, in a brave but broken voice. “I’ll settle up at the end of the week.”
And I was disappointed again. I think we all were.
Our parents had always liked a fire in the grate and only a heat wave prevented it. Our father particularly liked a coal fire and would gaze at the steady orange glow until his cheeks mottled and his eyes stopped blinking.