Comedy in a crisis

Man at the helm by Nina Stibbe



I just love this author. A more naturally funny writer you would have to go a long way to find. Her first book Love, Nina, a memoir about her time as a nanny, was an absolute riot and I found that Man At The Helm happily follows suit.

It’s 1970 and 9-year-old Lizzie Vogel is packed off to a small, hostile Leicestershire village with her sister, little brother and their drunken mother following their parents’ divorce.

Their budding-playwright mother is now all alone with her three young children and Debbie Reynolds the Labrador. Increasingly concerned about her bad play-writing and desperate to avoid becoming wards of court, Lizzie and her sister set about finding a man to take the helm. They compile a hilarious list of men they consider to be suitable spouses and contact them by letter to invite them to tea. This sparks a series of romantic mishaps and misunderstandings featuring rascally plumber Charlie Bates, the vicar, Mr Lomax (the Liberal candidate) and the local farmer. This is seriously funny stuff. Stibbe has a wonderful ear for comic dialogue that left me crumpled in fits of laughter and an eye for detail that soundly evokes the mood of a 1970s childhood.

Aside from the man list, Lizzie and her sister attempt to make friends and have some sort of youth whilst trying to run the household and keeping their mother’s spirits up. A darker novel emerges, though, as Mrs Vogel struggles with her finances, drink and depression and sends her daughters to London to fetch her pills from a private clinic.

The prose is  broken up with telling snippets of her awful and grim plays that depict how she is dealing with these mounting problems. Plays that poor Lizzie and her sister excruciatingly then have to act out!

This is such a good book. I relished every line on every page. No character, detail, speech or location is wasted. Extremely fresh, funny and just a brilliant, brilliant read. I can’t wait for her third book. I do hope it’s another 70s/80s comic blast!


 Notes on the author – Nina Stibbe:

  • Nina left Leicestershire for London as a teenager and after two years as a nanny she studied Humanities at Thames Polytechnic
  • In 1990 she began a career in book publishing, working in various departments before becoming a commissioning editor at Routledge
  • In 2002 she moved to Cornwall with her partner and children where she now writes, swims and makes bread

(Biography taken from


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