Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe


It was a worry that this novel wouldn't be as wonderful as Nina Stibbe's series of letters written to her sister while she was a nanny in London (Love, Nina). Turns out I needn't have worried. It was just as funny, perhaps even more so. When you read the plot summary, you may assume I'm kidding.

The 9-year-old Lizzie, her older sister, and their younger brother leave London with their mother when their father first falls in love with a man he works with and then in short order, marries a woman and has a new baby. The three chlldren and their mother moved to a house in a village and had ponies, a dog, and various rodents. They assumed money was not a problem as their mother was given shares from the family company as a divorce settlement. She was "rubbish" at overseeing money and "temperamentally unsuited" to washing clothes, cooking, or cleaning. She sent Lizzie and her sister to London to get pills from a doctor there in addition to those prescribed by the local doctor. They hoped the pills would stop her from writing the dreadful plays which they enacted together.

The people in the village disapproved of them and the two sisters concluded they needed to find a man to be at the helm so the people would be nice to them and their mother would stop writing plays. The list of men included married men, as they thought the marriages of couples seen arm-in-arm were obviously on the rocks. They wrote notes to various men posing as their mother and several times they were successful in enticing men to be her sexual partner for a time.  

Lizzie tells the story in her wise little kid voice, describing how they chose men for the list and their various schemes for cheering their mother up. It's that voice that makes you laugh.

After the demise of the Charlie Bates' relationship, it was increasingly hard to know how to herd our mother into happiness. I say "herd" because she was like a sheep who didn't seem to understand the direction in which she should be trotting and would willfully dart away from guidance and not be nudged to lovely, jolly things. She disliked food (the eating of it), and had stopped cooking, and she hated telly.

Predictably, the money does become a problem and "our mother" as Lizzie always calls her, does what is needed, thus earning the admiration of everyone. I love the advice she gave Lizzie when she was sent home from school because she could not stop crying and was unable to say what made her cry. She explains to her mother,

"I woke up with a great weight on me," I said.

"Oh, the weight," said our mother, suddenly understanding. "It's the pig."

"The pig?" I said.

"It's about a pig kind of weight, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is, a young one," I said, "a young pig."

"The pig arrives when one's feeling fed up. He turns up first thing in the morning and pins you to the bed."

"Why?" I said.

"To make you think, to make you cry, and make you see," she said. "And when he visits, he's just trying to help. You must make him welcome and he'll soon be gone."  

"Why is it a pig?" I ask.

"A pig is so much preferable to an anonymous bag of corn, don't you think?" 

Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm, Little, Brown & Co., 2015, 311 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • I just read this too and also loved it! That paragraph you quoted about herding her mother into happiness reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s image of riding an elephant as a way to achieve happiness.

  • I’m so glad you liked this too, Jen. And I agree that Jonathan Haidt’s riding the elephant is an apt connection.


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