I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:
What you most recently finished reading
What you are currently reading
What you will read next
Here are mine!
What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell
This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).
What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!
What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym
Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.
I am pleased to say I have finally finished reading Gareth Russell’s wonderful book about Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair. It took me about a month to read, which is a long time for me, but it was so worth it. I am now planning a blog post about it in conjunction with Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Catherine that I finished in January. They are two very different books about the same woman and I think it will be really interesting to do a bit of a contrast and compare.
I also have two other books to review that I have read this year: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and Labyrinths by Catrine Clay, which is a biography of Emma Jung, wife of Carl. These were two of the most interesting books that I have read recently, and reviews of them will soon be up!
Another review that will soon be up – it’s currently in drafts! – is See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book has been creating rather a lot of buzz, and is out in early May. [Update: this review is now up here.]
As for books I am about to read, there are far too many of course, but these are the ones I am most looking forward to:
These are books that I actually have copies of, so they are all I am going to include for now (the first four were kindly sent to me by Penguin, and the last three were purchases). There are way more on my GoodReads TBR that I am desperate to read, but until I actually have copies of them it feels too immaterial (literally) to commit to saying I will read them soon!
So there you have it – these are the books you can look forward to hearing about here on the blog and on my Twitter feed.
My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.
It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.
Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.
Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.
Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.
My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.
How do we know what is true, and what is not? How do we know that people really are who they say they are? Are you ever only one person? These were questions I asked myself while reading Lady Audley’s Secret recently. The novel starts off simply enough with a few chapters to set things up: the governness Miss Lucy Graham has recently married the much older Sir Michael Audley and become the eponymous heroine of the title. She is young and very beautiful – in fact throughout the book it is reiterated several times that she derives most of her power, and identity, from her beauty. We also meet Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert Audley, who is a layabout but somehow also a barrister; Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, who hates Lady Audley and is in love with Robert; and George Talboys, who is just about to land in England after having made his fortune finding gold in Australia. George has been gone for three years and left his wife and child behind, leaving them only a note to explain where he was going. His first task in England is to find his wife, Helen. It does not prove as simple as that.
From this point it all gets a bit complicated. Already we are wondering about Lady Audley and where she has come from, and why she has married Sir Michael, who though clearly a lovely person, is much older than her. It takes a long time for the reader to really get to grips with Lady Audley’s character. She is described as being very young and babyish, with childish mannerisms and a certain innocence about her; and yet when we see her alone with her maid, Phoebe, she seems much older and self-assured, and not afraid to ask for what she wants. Sir Michael has lavished her with a beautiful set of rooms filled with expensive trinkets, and you can’t help but think it is suspicious that she is all too willing to accept such riches from her new husband. Robert is beguiled by his new aunt and unwillingly attracted to her. Her charm and beauty, as well as her charisma, starts to form the idea of her as a siren, a seducer. And of course the title sets you off right away – what is she hiding?
Robert happens to be very good friends with George, and when he returns from Australia Robert brings him to Audley Court; but before he can meet Sir Michael and the new Lady Audley, George disappears. The rest of the novel centres around Robert’s search for him, and the various layers and forms of truth that he discovers along the way. It is shown, very deftly, that most of the characters in the novel simply accept the truth that is shown to them at face value. Once Robert has the motivation of finding his friend, he is unafraid to pull back the curtain and question what he previously thought to be true. It is fascinating to read about how much trouble Robert has to go to learn anything about George’s disappearance; in an age before modern technology, he travels up and down the country, questioning people about George. Without telephones or computers, finding out each piece of information is at least twice as hard as it would be now. I marvelled at the number of times Robert could so easily have missed something or someone. He has to dig and dig to get to anything other than surface truths, and you can see why they are so often accepted as fact by the other characters. The nature of truth itself is examined as Robert breaks through the layers.
Lady Audley’s is the identity we are chiefly concerned with; but Robert’s is also rather important. He is a barrister but has never worked a day in his life – he just sits around smoking and reading French novels. His family do not think of him as very intelligent, and it is stated more than once that he doesn’t seem to care about anything very much, and doesn’t put much value on love and human relationships. And yet once George goes missing, he is fraught with concern for his friend, and will do anything to find him. He becomes an amatuer detective, and the mystery consumes his life. He doubts himself for the first time, and wonders what he is capable of, while challenging what is presented to him as the truth. He has created a version of himself, and this is worn away by his search for George. Similarly Lady Audley’s identity and self are challenged as the events of the novel start to affect her. The facade of ‘Lady Audley’ is slowly broken down, and we start to see the woman underneath. Has she really become who we think she is, or does her old self remain?
This novel is also full of gender and class issues, which are wonderfully explored in the essay at the back of the Penguin English Library edition: ‘Gender and Role Playing’ by Elizabeth Tilley. I would really recommend reading it, but only after you’ve read the novel as it goes into the key plot points. It’s best to go into this novel without knowing anything about what happens, as eash layer of truth brings a new revelation, and shows you a new side to the characters. I very much admire Mary Elizabeth Braddon for writing such a complex and multi-faceted novel. Lady Audley must be one of the best literary creations of the 19th century, and I am very glad I took the time to find out who she really is. Will you?
First published as a serial in the magazine Robin Goodfellow, and then the Sixpenny Magazine, before being published as a novel by William Tinsley in 1862. I read the 2012 Penguin English Library edition (pictured above).
I’m not usually one for celebrity autobiographies. I think Anjelica Huston’s memoir was the first I actually read (that I can remember), and I only read that because I love Huston’s work, and the book seemed down to earth and non-sensationalist, which it was. It was a journey through a life. I decided to read Drew Barrymore’s book Wildflower because I have always liked her as an actress, and find her to be an interesting person. Also, when I read about the book it didn’t seem like a straightforward life story, more like snippets and anecdotes. I am happy to say that is largely true.
I liked a lot of things about Wildflower, but one of the major things is the structure and tone. It is not a chronological story, but more eclectic. This feels more like the natural way that memory works, and avoids a list-like description of ‘this happened, and then this…’. The stories this book tells are of different lengths and different levels of significance, but they are all about life – they are defining moments or experiences that have made an impression and are memories that stand out for Drew Barrymore, for one reason or another. She does not ‘tell all’, but shares stories and lessons she has learned. But it isn’t preachy, or her trying to give advice. It is just what she has learned, and what is important, and what matters in life. There is a lot about family, and the difference it can make to our lives. I found her discussion of parent/child relationships very interesting, with stories from both perspectives rounding out the experience. Drew Barrymore had very non-traditional parents and a very non-traditional upbringing, and you can see the impact this has made on her as she navigates her other relationships and later creates her own family. It is very sweet and heartwarming to hear her desire for stability and love, and how much she cherishes family and understands the importance of it, whether it’s good or bad.
As I said this isn’t a ‘tell all’, so while Barrymore does talk about the wilder aspects of her childhood, she makes the correct assumption that anyone reading her book probably already knows the outline of the story, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need all the nitty-gritty. She does speak about her emancipation from her parents at age fourteen, which I found amazing, as she has to tackle renting a flat and getting a job at such a young age. It sounds terrifying, but exciting. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all that at fourteen! She is very brave and determined, and I really admire this.
The tone of the book is very positive and hopeful, and although sometimes Barrymore’s style of writing can get a bit cute and chirpy (there are a lot of exclamation marks), I actually liked this because it felt like her real voice, and the way she would naturally talk and write. She isn’t a ‘writer’, so you don’t expect the writing to be perfect. Instead it is engaging, entertaining, and interesting. Drew Barrymore is a good storyteller.
I really enjoyed Wildflower. It was a nice break from my usual serious/literary stuff, and I loved that the book doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – just like Drew Barrymore. And I love the cover!
Published in 2015 by Virgin Books (part of Ebury and PRH).
I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.
Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.
I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.
Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.
The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.
It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.
There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?
I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.
First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.
Last year I wrote about wanting to re-read some books that I either loved, or had sort of forgotten but was sure I liked. Jane Eyre wasn’t on that list, but for some reason I recently felt compelled to re-read it. It might be because I wanted to finally get around to reading my copy of The Madwoman in the Attic, which of course made me think of Jane Eyre, and made me miss reading 19th century books – and so I got my copy out of the bookshelf one evening, and started reading.
I knew I remembered the overall story and the ‘important bits’, as well as the most upsetting, but as I read I realised there was as lot I had forgotten, like the details of Jane’s experience in the red-room and why that episode is often now used as an example of the limits or confines of women’s lives in the 19th century, along with things like The Yellow Wallpaper; and I was glad to have re-read this section and to have really felt like I now understood it. It sets in motion Jane’s determination not to give in to the will of others, and to live her life as she chooses.
The section at Lowood was almost as heartbreaking as the first time I read it, and I was still moved by Helen’s death in Jane’s arms (oh god). Which is pretty amazing considering I knew what was going to happen, which was of course the case with the whole book (mostly – as I say I had forgotten some details). Reading the book a second time meant that I knew exactly who was making that strange laugh on the third floor, who it was that set Rochester’s bed on fire; and why Rochester is so damn grumpy and moody all the time. I also knew that he was falling in love with Jane and never really intended to marry Miss Ingram; but this didn’t ruin the scene in which he finally tells her this. It was just as brilliant and exciting – which is testament to the skill and power of Charlotte Bronte’s writing, and the story itself. It is almost as good as the moment Darcy finally tells Lizzie how ardently he admires and loves her.
Jane’s discovery of Bertha, and her visit to the upstairs room in which she lived, was still intense and dramatic, but it lost some of its shock-factor in re-reading. It felt more sad than anything else, as I have had the time to consider Bertha’s fate, and also to read Wide Sargasso Sea (which you MUST read if you’ve read Jane Eyre). I pitied Bertha more than I feared her. I also wondered why Rochester decided to bring her to England in the first place if she was so ill. Surely she should have stayed in Jamaica with her brother? This bothered me throughout the book, so if anyone has the answer please let me know! (Aside from the fact that she and Rochester are married.)
I had forgotten a lot of the section when Jane is living with St John and his sisters, and runs the school, and discovers they are cousins and also that she is now rich; and this was probably because this is the lest exciting part of the book, despite the fact that quite a lot actually happens. Up to the point where Jane leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night, the book is full of drama and the style is very engaging and enjoyable. Once she has left Thornfield it all gets a bit ‘woe is me’, and while I still admire Jane’s resolve and bravery, the story does slow down somewhat and – especially on a second reading – you just want it all to hurry up. I’d also forgotten what a git St John is. The conversation in which she rejects him is just brilliant.
As for the ending – ah, the ending. It was as weird and brilliant as I remembered. As with the ending of Rebecca, it is bittersweet. Both books end with the couple, finally together and free of the past, moving on to their new future; but having to get over the trauma of the past as they do so. It is happy, but it is not lovers riding off into the sunset; this is not a fairy tale. This is Jane and Rochester confronting the bad in order to capture the good. It is a satisfying ending, but the story still stays with you after the book is closed.
One of the things I love about Jane Eyre is that none of the characters are perfect – they are all deeply flawed people that must make the best of things, whether they are responsible for them or not. While the whole thing is very dramatic and sometimes a bit far-fetched (the Rivers siblings just HAPPEN to be Jane’s cousins), it still feels down-to-earth and is filled with Charlotte Bronte’s clear understanding of the frailty of human nature. It was a joy to re-read and I think I will now either re-read some more of my favourtie 19th century books, or seek out some I haven’t read (I’m also dying to re-watch the film adaptation with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender). At the moment my list includes: Agnes Grey, Lady Audley’s Secret, Emma, Wuthering Heights (I’ve only read about half of it), and something gothic by Elizabeth Gaskell but I’m not sure what. I would love to hear some recommendations! But for now, I shall be working my way throught The Madwoman in the Attic, which I may blog about as I read, as it is so long! Has anyone else read it?
Yes, horror. As in the genre, not the feeling in real life.
When I think of the horror genre, I think first of movies. I have always been a bit a scaredy-cat with them and let them get into my head, and find it hard to sleep after watching them. But this has begun to change recently, mostly because my boyfriend Dan is a massive fan of the genre. I used to refuse to watch horror films with him for fear of being too ‘bothered’ by them; but over time I have compromised and agreed to watch a few milder ones about possession or something. And I can now say that I am happy to watch horror films – though I still have a limit. I happily watched The Babadook, but I refuse to watch any of the Saw films, as they just seem to be gore on top of gore. Not my thing.
I have always loved The Others, the Nicole Kidman movie about a very haunted house, famously made with minimal special effects. It is really bloody scary, but I love it because I find it interesting. And as I have watched more horror films with Dan, and we have talked about them, and he has explained why he loves them, I have come to understand them more and realise what it is that makes them interesting. I think some people watch them for the thrill of the fear, but I think I watch them because not only are they interesting psychologically, they are also exciting, in a similar way to a gritty crime novel – what will happen next? What is the truth? As with Saw I don’t want to watch anything gory – that doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather something psychological with a mystery, and a few good scares along the way. I’ve always liked gothic themes and imagery, and this is a huge part of the horror genre.
Now, Dan loves horror movies, but he also like books that fit into the genre in some way, from ghost stories to strange fiction like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Aickman. I’ve tried reading Aickman and just couldn’t get along with it; but then Dan brought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with him on our recent holiday. He was reading The Amityville Horror, and I’d just finished Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and had nothing else to read, so I picked up the Jackson.
I loved her novel Hangsaman and already wanted to read something more by her. I loved The Haunting of Hill House from the start; the opening paragraph was enough to make me keep reading:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
I mean, that is just fantastic. The last few words also made me think of Satan walking on the sphere of the Earth in Paradise Lost, which was a nice little bonus. And so ominous!
The novel tells the story of a professor who invites a group of people to stay with him in Hill House, and see if they can find any evidence of it being haunted. One, Theodora, has some sort of psychic ability; then there is Eleanor, our central character, who has experienced supernatural ‘activity’; and lastly Luke, who is the heir to the house. The professor’s wife also turns up later on and causes a lot of problems. Anyway. It is a classic haunted house story, with funny noises, inexplicable cold drafts, loud bangs, and lots of weird occurrences.
But the most gripping part of it for me was the strange effect that staying in the house seems to have on Eleanor. She begins to feel that it wants her there, that it is trying to talk to her… suffice to say as the novel goes on, it gets more and more intense, and stranger things start to happen. The pace is beautifully measured, and the reader isn’t sure whether or not to believe Eleanor, or to believe if there are ghosts in house or not. As I have realised Jackson’s work to be, it is engaging and beguiling, surreal and beautiful.
The Haunting of Hill House, as a book, is creepy rather than outright scary. The first film adaptation, released in 1963 is often called the scariest film ever made. I’ve yet to see it, but am eager to see the transition of the story to the screen – I can easily imagine that it would be much more frightening as a film than as a book. There was another film adaptation, released in 1999 and staring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, called simply The Haunting, which frankly looks a bit silly, but could still be good. I shall be watching both to compare!
I must say that reading Man at the Helm was quite a departure for me. As my boyfriend and, I’m sure, my readers will testify, I usually read sad/serious books. Apparently someone always dies and/or cries. There’s a fair bit of crying in Man at the Helm, and a small amount of death, but on the whole it’s a much cheerier book that the ones I usually read.
The main reason for this cheeriness is the cheeriness of Nina Stibbe. In nine-year-old Lizzie (excellent name choice) she has created one of the most believable and real-sounding child narrators I’ve ever come across. Lizzie’s narration in generally cheery, despite some serious ups and downs, and she, nor Stibbe, allows us to wallow in negativity. I very much agree with Lara Feigel’s review for The Independent, in which she says that “In other hands, the plot could be the stuff of chick-lit or the Aga saga, but what is brilliant here is the convincingness of the child’s point of view” and that “Telling the story from the child’s perspective allows the children’s values to dominate.” Feigel has exactly identified what it is that stops Man at the Helm from becoming too sentimental or cute, and that also adds credence to it being narrated by a child. This is always a tricky move, and if done badly can produce a cringe-worthy book that no one takes seriously. Stibbe, of course, manages to avoid this.
Feigel’s review also states that the novel is semi-autobiographical – which accounts for not only the authenticity and likeability of Lizzie’s narration but also the authenticity of the story. While cheery it is really the story of a family having to reconstruct their entire lives, something that as a child of divorce I know to be a very unpleasant process. Though Lizzie keeps her chin up, and there is a lot of love and happiness in the book, the beginnings of it, the premise, are not particularly happy at all. But Stibbe saves it from misery by having Lizzie as her chipper narrator, and going back to Feigel’s review, this fact means that the values of Lizzie and her siblings are brought to the forefront. They are fundamental and simple – they want their mother, and themselves, to be happy. As children they aren’t fully aware of or do not completely comprehend the sometimes depressing nature of their situation, those things that make their mother drink, take antidepressants, and write her godawful plays. They do not see these things as an adult would – in all their grey misery – but rather as only children can. Problems that need to be solved. And that’s it. This charming simplicity saves the book from sadness, and for those of us to whom divorce is familiar, stops it from being too depressing to want to read.
Instead we are taken on a bit of a romp through a variety of slightly ridiculous situations that Lizzie manages to make seem normal thanks to her matter-of-fact turn of phrase and natural sense of humour. I laughed just because she made certain phrases sound funny, something which will appeal to those who like wordplay and have the ability to find humour in the mundanities of life. Such as:
We loved Mrs Vanderbus [their old neighbour] – I’m writing an extra line about her because of it. She often brought us home-made Dutch sugar cakes in pretty tins, which she always wanted back (the tins). And who, when she found a grass snake in the crocosmia, called us to see it and lifted it like a true expert even though she’d only ever seen one on the telly before and suffered a delayed panic attack approximately a week later and had to see Dr Hillward for a pill.
Laughing at Lizzie’s phrases and little side-stories felt like remembering the random and odd things that made you laugh as a child, that are in no way funny on their own, but have you in fits of giggles (usually with people who were there at the time) at the mere thought of them, years after the event. This is one of the joys of family, of being stuck with the same people all your life, so that you have all the same references and memories, and the same things to make you laugh. I don’t laugh with anyone as much as I laugh with my sister, remembering things like old teachers and that time she vomited in a cable car (sorry for mentioning that…). Some might accuse Stibbe of this novel being a bit cosy and familiar, but for someone who reads mostly about people who die (apparently), this is a good thing. Man at the Helm still has a lot of sadness, but it is everyday sadness, the sadness of the misfortunes of life that we all must live with everyday. It is not big dramatic sadness that people talk about for decades. It is the sadness of one family. And somehow that’s sadder than anything.
Some reviewers have commented on the fact that this book perpetuates the idea that a woman needs a man to be complete, and I did think about this once I’d finished the book. It is something to consider, but one must also consider the fact that this book is narrated by a child who just wants her mother and her family to be happy, and that she is mourning the loss of having parents that are still together. It is made very clear that Lizzie and her family are effectively shunned by their friends, and their new village, because of the divorce. Not only has their life changed dramatically, they are given no sympathy from anyone. From Lizzie and her sister’s point of view at least, they won’t be accepted again until they have a ‘complete’ family unit, i.e. a ‘man at the helm’. They look for one for their mother out of a desire for her happiness but also a desire for a return to some semblance of their old life. I think that Stibbe is aware of the issue of a woman ‘needing’ a man, and Lizzie makes a very clear point at the end of the book that a man is not always what is needed to be happy or to get along, and that some mothers cope fine on their own. Her and her sister’s search for a man at the helm is relative to their family, and it is what they want/think they need. A lot of the men they try out are also really crap, like their father, and this, coupled with their mother’s spur of self-betterment that happens in the last third of the book, only goes to show that a man cannot always help.
My last note here will be about Debbie the dog. You know how there are mad cat people? I’m a mad dog person. I pretty much see them as people. So I cared about Debbie. She appears sporadically as a large, comforting presence, and I loved how Little Jack (Lizzie’s little brother) sat in her basket with her, and how when they have to move to a smaller house there is nowhere for her to stretch out and be alone “like a walrus”, and it is humiliating for all involved when she has to be taken for actual walks rather than just roam about the family land has she had done previously. She is a character in herself. Which is why I was pretty upset when she gets hit by a car. I just thought WHY. Why would this be in this book? But then maybe this happened to Nina Stibbe’s dog; maybe the children needed to experience the pain of worrying about her (she survives, don’t worry). It’s an upsetting episode and I wondered what its purpose was. But perhaps it was there to demonstrate the random cruelty of life, and the fact that despite this we (and dogs) can still pull through. Debbie is a bit “wonky” after her accident, and I suppose this is like a family after divorce. Still alive, still here, still good, but a bit wonky.
Published by Viking/Penguin on 28th August 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.