Sunday 15 September 2019

Comic trilogy comes full circle with high-jinks at the dentist's

Fiction: Reasons to be Cheerful

Nina Stibbe

Viking, hardback, 275 pages, €18.20

Comedy: Stibbe keeps you open-jawed
Comedy: Stibbe keeps you open-jawed
Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe has always been good at teeth. We first met the 11-year-old Lizzie Vogel in Man at the Helm, on a mission to find her mother a new husband. Potential stepfathers were ranked by their "appreciation of animals and television" but the quality of their dental arrangements (seen variously, as "nice", "pitted", or "like a row of shutters lightly ajar") was also thrown into the mix.

Paradise Lodge, Stibbe's 2016 follow-up, found Lizzie working in a local care home, juggling the demands of school exams and elderly bladders. She learnt a lot on the job, not least the fact that mixed loads are fine for laundry, but best avoided when sluicing assortments of near-identical dentures.

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But Reasons to be Cheerful, the third in her semi-auto-biographical series, is fully toothsome. It is now 1980, and our (entirely unqualified) heroine has landed a post as a dental surgery assistant. Her boss JP Wintergreen, Lizzie recalls, had "surprisingly bad teeth (for a dentist), smelled strongly of vinegar and tobacco, and the European way of arranging his trousers (hoist high, with everything down one leg)". It's not the best of starts, and the corrupt, bigoted wannabe-Freemason goes downhill from there. Stibbe's portrait of 1980s racism and sexism is well done, and both too dark and too timely to make for easy reading.

Love is still, for Lizzie, the thing. While Paradise Lodge saw her pining for the enigmatic Mike Yu, here her affections have moved to a technician at the nearby dental lab, who "dines on shop-bought sandwiches, wears a Fred Perry" and comes around to use her Hoover Aristocrat. Things look promising. There's quite a bit of rolling around on the sofa but, even after watching "an erotic episode of Dallas", nothing much "happened after a certain point", as Lizzie puts it. Further attempts to lose her virginity are stymied by athlete's foot, small siblings, and things "not conducive to sex".

Back in the town centre, Lizzie lets off steam with some attempts at grown-up parties, and a spot of guerrilla dentistry. The connected tales of buccal inlay, Ossie wrap dresses, mesial silicate, and "clumsy digging around the gum line", read like a cross between James Herriot and Nicholas Nickleby, but with fewer rubber gloves and side whiskers. This is a joyfully meandering kind of novel (and the nature of a dentist's surgery is inherently episodic), but at its heart is a sensitive portrayal of rootedness of a different kind. Stibbe's comedy probes what it means to become an adult, and how we form our financial, sexual, moral and political selves.

Perhaps the most important relationship in this novel - and in the trilogy as a whole - is the one between Lizzie and Elizabeth. A "drunk, divorcee, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter, would-be novelist, poet, playwright", Elizabeth also happens to be Lizzie's mother. Her flailing, failing appearances throughout Stibbe's oeuvre vividly capture the comedies, tragedies and peculiar liberations of single-parenthood.

One of Stibbe's skills is in the creation of an almost autonomous fictional universe, and Lizzie's mother is a character who just manages to float free. Stibbe's other great gift is in the rhythm of her sentences. Reading any novel is a bit like being stuck in a dentist's chair - you're at someone else's mercy, with no right to reply. Stibbe has the timing, and the beats, to keep you open-jawed.

As the novel ends, Lizzie Vogel is set for a new adventure. She has no fixed ambitions, but is "an expert in baby care", having taught herself to change her brother's nappy in less than two minutes without taking the cigarette from her mouth. A career in nannying surely calls. The next step, one senses, can only be the letters home that were to become Stibbe's wonderful non-fiction debut, Love, Nina. There's a feeling of coming full circle, as the Lizzie of fiction slides into the Nina of reality - and it's a testament to the quality of the trilogy that I'm sad to say goodbye.

Sophie Ratcliffe is the author of 'The Lost Properties of Love'

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