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One Day I Shall Astonish the World: A moving ode to marriage and friendship

Book review: Nina Stibbe’s writing is full of humorous observations and delightful idiosyncrasy

One Day I Shall Astonish the World
Author: Nina Stibbe
ISBN-13: 9780241451168
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Honey is not the druggy type, let me make that clear. She enjoys her food, for goodness’ sake, she goes to bed early, she has no friends apart from Darnley, and they bake cakes and watch cartoons, and I’m certain she doesn’t take drugs.”

This bit of arch comedy, where the reader clearly knows more than the character, comes from Susan, wife of Roy, mother of teenager Honey, and the altogether charming protagonist of Nina Stibbe’s new novel One Day I Shall Astonish the World.

This is Stibbe’s first work of fiction away from the Vogel family, a comic trilogy whose final instalment was published in 2019. Readers familiar with the books will remember the middle-child narrator Lizzie Vogel as clever, funny and insightful. These traits are evident in Susan too, though in a quieter and less obvious way. As the quotation above shows, Susan is slow on the uptake, wilfully slow, a middle-aged woman with an administrative job at a university and a marriage that appears to be unravelling.

When we first meet her, a year or so shy of pandemic times, Susan is channelling the lack of intimacy in her marriage into a mild obsession with the university’s vice-chancellor, a scenario Stibbe plays for great comic effect throughout the book. The prologue sets up the promise of an affair that never materialises. Instead Stibbe gives us a portrait of stasis: a suburban housewife who doesn’t follow through on her desires, who spends a lot of time in a fantasy land, unwilling, or unable, to rock the boat in reality. Or, as Honey puts it, “Mum’s always nice. She wants everyone to like her, it’s her thing.”

Stibbe understands the value of repetition, circling back on jokes at the right time and in a new context, giving readers the old one-two punch of wit and insight with remarkable regularity

Stibbe has been called Sue Townsend’s heir, and it’s easy to see why. There’s the mining of everyday life for humour, her merciless observations on character, her skewering of provincial, lower-middle class Britain, its traditions and small-town tragedies.

This new book has echoes in literary fiction too. The fantastical denials of Katherine Mansfield’s short story Bliss, the sharp social commentary and compassion for lonely souls in the writing of Elizabeth Taylor and, particularly, the sense of alienation within a marriage as depicted in Evan S Connell’s classic novel Mrs Bridge, are all present in this new book.

The ironic title – also the motto of the university where Susan works, and where Honey sells drugs – gets unpacked over the course of a narrative that goes back, after the prologue, to 1990s Leicestershire, where we meet Susan as an English undergrad and learn, as the book progresses, the reasons why she dropped out of college, how she ended up marrying Roy, the ways in which marriage surprised and disappointed her.

Complementing, and indeed elevating, this conventional storyline is another about Susan and her best friend Norma, a kind of alter ego who seems, right from the outset, to be living Susan’s best life. This interrogation of friendship is Stibbe at her best – quirky, compelling characters and relationships that seem, on the face of it, not to make sense. After the pair meet through a job in a haberdashery shop, the dynamic is quickly established when Susan agrees to tutor Norma for nothing to help her gain a place to study arts in college.

The imbalance continues to grow as the years pass: Norma on the take, Susan the pushover. The characterisation of both women is deft. Susan’s amenable personality and her tendency to dither (“I need to explain myself at length, to take a long run-up to any announcement or news, however mundane, my need to talk, to ward off silence and bad feeling”) is no match for Norma, who is canny, ambitious, pragmatic to the point of unfeeling, the kind of woman who is calculating in all matters of life, even when choosing her bridesmaids: “Why would anyone want a younger, prettier version of themself, holding flowers, and looking bashful?”

There are jealousies and rivalries aplenty, but also love, loyalty and, crucially, a shared sense of humour. The tension between the women doesn’t ever really resolve and readers may feel short-changed in that respect. The action of the novel is diffuse rather than concentrated, a scattergun approach that suits Stibbe’s style of writing, which is dense with humorous observations and full of delightful idiosyncrasy. Like a stand-up comic, she understands the value of repetition, circling back on jokes at the right time and in a new context, giving readers the old one-two punch of wit and insight with remarkable regularity.

Later sections that chart the pandemic at first seem tokenistic, but Stibbe ties it all together in this moving ode to marriage and friendship, to lives unlived, chances untaken, and the great joke of agency in a world where everything can turn upside down in a heartbeat.