Nina Stibbe is the hero of finding your voice. For 30 years, certain she was meant to be a writer, she struggled to write a novel. Then her sister gave her some letters Stibbe had written to her long ago when she worked as a nanny, and she turned them into the 2013 memoir Love, Nina. When that became a bestseller, she realised her strength lay in the voice of those letters: half-innocent, opinionated and dry; observant, quick as a ferret and brilliantly funny.

She used a similar voice for her debut novel, Man at the Helm, and honed it in two more. Her fourth, Reasons to Be Cheerful, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction and the Comedy Women in Print Prize. Her acceptance speech for the latter recalled a male reviewer’s description of the novel as “a pleasant but slight coming-of-age story”. She said she wouldn’t have minded if he did not think it funny, or if he had hated it. “But that book is not slight. It’s got extremely important things in it. Though maybe not for him.”

Her gift is deceptive. Maybe it could look slight, especially to men, but it is not. She puts words together with an immaculate ear for the absurd, mixing satire and bathos, juxtaposing quirkily unlike objects and sentiments in sentences so funny you howl with laughter. But underneath is a sharp-eyed, non-judgemental message about tolerating other people – people very different from yourself (“How these men stare at their phones”), or friends who sometimes stab you in the back.

At one level, her new novel is Elena Ferrante-rescripted as English comedy: the story of a 30-year friendship between two women, set in and around the University of Rutland (its motto: “One Day I Shall Astonish the World”). Susan, the narrator, first meets Norma when she works for Norma’s parents in their haberdashery shop. Susan opts for marriage and a baby, without finishing a degree, while Norma, tutored in Eng Lit at first by Susan, goes from strength to glamorous strength. She does a PhD, gets a staff job, publishes prize-winning poetry and temporarily runs the university. Susan, living on the edge of campus, so near and yet so far, takes a lowly facilitating job as the vice-chancellor’s PA.

The friendship putters along in fits and starts, with contemporary literary life bubbling slyly in the background. Sometimes the friends are barely on speaking terms. Norma steals Susan’s wedding dress design and her place at a Buckingham Palace tea party; it is always unclear who is jealous of whom. But, by the start of the pandemic in 2020, friendship wins out.

The book is every bit as hilarious as Reasons to Be Cheerful. The wayward, wildly original and beautifully noticing sentences are perfectly cadenced. “The smell of the hotel soap, the clammy texture of the fabric-conditioned towels and the dreadful feeling of being -married.”

But the new novel tackles a larger canvas. Despite the humour, there is failure, disappointment and pain in the lives of many people around Susan. And alongside her friendship with Norma, another story is gradually revealed: Susan’s deep, although irritable, love for her husband, Roy – who, after she gives birth, photographs the placenta rather than the baby, and when he discovers Susan has been feeding him a vegan diet, phones a lawyer to see if he can sue. Their daughter, too, is difficult and unpredictable. But there are also the sorts of moments that, without shouting about it, make a life worth living. Despite the sparkling, satirical voice, and her laughter at the littleness of Little England, Stibbe creates a world in which tolerance and forgiveness are the key, even in these dark and scary times, to the possibility of a happy life.

The Daily Telegraph

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