A different castle

Nina Stibbe's Man at the helm, which was shortlisted for the Woodhouse comic writing award, has been compared to I capture the castle. After my recent I capture the castle experience, it seemed the ideal book to read next. I don't think it really delivers though, and it's not in the same league as Dodie Smith's Castle.

That's not to say that it's not very funny because it is. Set in the 1970's, Lizzie, the narrator, is the middle-child in a dysfunctional upper-crust family. Forced to move to a Leicestershire village following the break-up of her parents' marriage, Lizzie and her siblings plot to find a suitable "man at the helm" to steer her eccentric (and depressed) mother back into village society. It's very funny, and there are some wonderful set-piece moments.

Some of the best sections are, I suspect, semi-autobiographical. There's a great character in Maxwell, the feisty Welsh mountain pony, and one of my comedy quotes of the year comes out of that: "Never let a horse look out of an upstairs window".

The best writing, I think, is actually not the comic chapters, but the more serious ending which is very touching. There's good character development especially in the characters of Mother and Little Jack, the baby brother; and any dog lover will feel for Debbie the labrador. But ultimately it didn't quite do it for me.

Lizzie's voice, though sometimes very authentic, was generally a bit too arch and knowing. There were some genuinely moving moments, especially around the circumstances leading to a miscarriage, but I just couldn't connect with the family. It was generally a fun read, but unlike Castle, it's not a book I'm going to want to revisit in 10, 20, 30 years time.


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