Fun But Serious: Two Recent Reads

Sometimes humour is the best way to get a serious message across. Here are two books which have made me laugh out loud recently while reading them, but their message echoed and rippled in my mind for quite a while afterwards.

manathelmNina Stibbe: Man at the Helm

The idea that this book could be even semi-autobiographical fills me with horror, although the children seem to be getting on with their lives quite well despite the difficulties. After a privileged early childhood and an acrimonious divorce, nine-year-old Lizzie and her two siblings move with their mother to a village in Leicestershire, where they are made to feel very unwelcome. Their mother is attractive, rather too susceptible to male attention and completely useless around the house. Furious with her ex-husband yet helpless to improve their situation, she soon descends in a chaos of drunken self-pity, depression and bad playwriting. Or, as the author puts it: ‘a menace and a drunk and a playwright’.

This is just one example of the subtle touches underneath the often rather broad comedy: their mother once wrote a play while still at school, which was much praised and even performed for a week by drama students. That had been her one taste of success and she is now trying to recapture that lost dream, ‘now that her life was just a long grey smear with no relief’. So their mother has artistic aspirations and is writing a play based on her life ‘with snippets expanded, exaggerated, explained or remedied’, which she makes the family enact regularly

The children are forced to grow up rather quickly and become self-reliant. When they realise that their parents will never get back together again and that having a bad father is still somehow better than having no father at all and being made wards of court, so they resolve to help their mother find a new husband. This quest, in essence, forms the bulk of the book and leads to all sorts of hilarious and almost implausible situations. Of course, their mother makes her own disastrous mistakes in the process, they become even poorer and need to move out of their house, but there is a semi-happy ending.

I love the breezy, matter-of-fact style in which the narrator tells us about quite bad instances of suffering and neglect, the descriptions of bad housekeeping, haphazard pet ownership, no cooking and disastrous experiments with the washing machine. The scene with the two sisters going to London on their own to get additional anti-depressants for their mother was particularly harrowing, despite the bonus trip to the London Zoo.  The mother’s downward spiral will sound worryingly familiar to anyone who has ever suffered from depression, especially when combined with parenting worries or bad divorces. This felt like the more satirical, less dramatic (and perhaps less deep) version of Claire King’s ‘The Night Rainbow’ (it also shows the difference between rural France and ‘little’ England).

It’s a wonderful recreation of a period in recent history – the 1970s, with spot-on observations and sly asides – yet it has a much older feel to it, an innocence and freedom to roam perhaps better suited to the 1950s. As for the children, their wit and self-sufficiency, their curious mix of worldliness and naivety, reminded me of ‘The Treasure Seekers’ or ‘The Railway Children’. They write letters to all male candidates in the neighbourhood (regardless whether they are married or not) and invite them to visit under various pretexts. This deadpan humour is very charming and stops the story from descending into sentimentality:

Our aim had been that they should have a drink and then have sex in her sitting room and do it enough times until they got engaged and then married. But we’d let him slip through our fingers with bad planning and shoddy execution. And though we agreed Mr Lomax wasn’t the ideal, we evaluated our efforts as if he had been, even though he most definitely hadn’t. It had been a mistake, we agreed, not to have offered any snacks or put on any music, and this might have led to Mr Lomax feeling uncomfortable and probably peckish and if there was one thing I knew for definite about men it was that they cannot perform sex if hungry.

LelivrequifaitaimerFrançoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

This is a graphic book for children (and grown-ups) listing all the advantages of reading, owning and loving books in a fun, irreverent way which will appeal especially to the less avid readers (like my younger son). Some reviewers have found it a bit repetitive and silly, but our views as adults really don’t matter: my children loved it and it’s such a fun idea. It’s full of schoolchildren’s slang, so perhaps it’s funnier in the original French, but it has been translated into English and is available from Walker children’s books.

No need for me to waffle on about it, let me just show you a couple of my favourite pages to give you a flavour:

Books don't make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand  pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books don’t make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: 'Pass the salt' before and after reading.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: ‘Pass the salt’ before and after reading.

 

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21 thoughts on “Fun But Serious: Two Recent Reads”

  1. Marina Sofia – Sometimes laughter is the very best way to convey an important message. I’m glad you found two books that do that well. I really must try Man at the Helm

    1. I think you’d enjoy it, Margot. (Although it could have been an even greater book, with more depth, but apparently it’s a discarded novel which she wrote when she was about 20). She has a very English sense of humour, which can be quite mordant in a quiet way. Plus a very strong individual voice, always a good thing!

  2. Oh, the children’s book is hilarious, to judge by those two spreads (and even though my French is atrocious)! I think I’ve found my wife’s Xmas stocking-stuffer . . .

  3. ‘Man at the Helm’ sounds fascinating, and your comparison to ‘The Night Rainbow’ has made it a must-read for me! The graphic novel looks adorable too; I’ve been wanting to read more French books, so I think it would be a good one to ease myself back in with. You always read such wonderful looking books!

    1. It’s the jocular younger sister of the more poetic Night Rainbow… and yes, graphic novels are a great way to ease yourself back into French. I used comic books to get my children used to French before they started French school over here and it has worked a treat!

      1. I’m even more intrigued by it now! If only I had a good French bookshop nearby (and wasn’t on a book-buying ban of sorts). That sounds a wonderful idea, and I’m so glad that it’s worked for you!

  4. Man at the Helm sounds brilliant. Can you think of any other books that fit the fun but serious label? I’m writing such a book myself and am collecting examples so I can study how it’s done. I think Maria Semple does this well, but I’d love to hear any others you know of.

    1. Good luck with your book – it’s a great way to address important issues! Marian Keyes has a deceptively light, absurd, chick-lit style but discusses serious problems such as depression, abortion, divorce and the like. Classics for a reason: Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

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