Reasons to be Cheerful

Nina Stibbe’s novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful, the third volume in a series of semi-autobiographical novels, hasn’t been short of recognition, winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2019, and the Comedy Women in Print Prize in 2020. As is so often the case with comic novels, though, critical suspicion lingers – with some critics dismissing it as insubstantial. This disregard is also partly about Stibbe’s unabashedly women-centric preoccupations; with the relationship between mothers and children a particular focus. The exploration of these relationships is very far from ‘slight’, however, and the novel’s interest in playing with the obligations of kinship positions a kind of ungrasping neutrality or pragmatism as a freer form of relation. When Lizzie, our eighteen-year old narrator, talks about her wayward mother for example, she says ‘she was like a character I’d come to know and love from a comic or a sitcom and … I enjoyed watching’ (15). This is not to say there aren’t intense or difficult feelings too, but the detached relish or enjoyment apparent here gets beyond the usual familial model of duties and demands, a model that’s oppressive for both children and parents.

The idea of neutrality or detachment from the perspective of the child is one thing, but it’s harder to posit as an ideal when looking at motherhood, which is so much about attachment, and certainly Lizzie’s mother’s benign neglect might seem to border on the pathological, but some forms of attachment, like over-identification or excessive partiality, can be just as problematic. Detachment is also, simply, a reality, an often disavowed aspect of parenting that Stibbe freely acknowledges, gleefully flouting the conventional insistence upon sentiment or piety about child-rearing and motherhood. If Lizzie and her siblings demonstrate the ways in which children understand that mothers are to be managed, then mothers are shown to share a similarly hard-headed pragmatism towards their children.

In one particular passage, for example, when Lizzie’s mother is due to get surgery, Lizzie, imagining the worst, fantasises about having to take responsibility for her youngest brother, Danny. The passage starts by gently mocking Lizzie’s own fantasy of motherhood, tethering what follows in the sweetness we know to be characteristic of her, but quickly unfurls into a riff on maternal ambivalence:
‘I’d make him forget the past and call me Mother and that way I’d be accepted by society without having to go through actual childbirth and risk having a child who was scared of water or dogs or didn’t like music or stayed awake at night, or had long arms and could reach out from its pram. I’d seen a baby like this in Fenwick’s, literally grabbing things off the shelves. ‘He always does that,’ said the mother. ‘He’s got extra-long arms.’
The list of tricky attributes swells until we reach the absurdity of ‘long arms’, and the subtle distortion of this feature is just one way in which the passage enacts a detached perspective on children. The call-back of the mother’s dialogue (‘He always does that.. He’s got extra-long arms’) corroborates Lizzie’s comment in the sentence before; pulled from the ranks of memory, she’s now before us, testifying (resigned, neutral) to her child’s extra-long appendages. Then it’s the turn of the Jickson twins:
‘Then there were April Jickson’s twins – I can’t remember their real names, because she always called them Thing One and Thing Two – for whom I’d babysat a few times after her husband had suffered a life-changing accident in Rimini. Thing One was quite sweet and normal, but Thing Two, my God, he was a real fusspot, and yet they were biological twins. Thing One would tuck into his fish-finger igloo with nothing but praise and admiration (‘Look, Lizzie made an igloo’) whereas Thing Two would angrily want to know why I’d fooled around with his food and would dig at the mashed potato dome with his kiddy-fork looking for his fish fingers, and the only song he’d allow was ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ by the Carpenters, and that’s not a song you can take more than once or twice.
I once reported Thing Two to April. ‘He’s a bit fussy, isn’t he?’ I’d said.
‘Tell me about it!’ said April. ‘He can be a right little cunt.’ (191)

Like the baby reduced to a single attribute, the twins are subtly diminished in not having ‘real’ names, and again, the mother’s part in this is emphasised, partly to preserve Lizzie’s sweetness, which is so important in offsetting the mockery. Lizzie’s voice comes back to the fore, though, in her assessment of the twins, borne out by her experience of babysitting, and this provides a slightly different form of detachment; judging the children from her intermediary position – still young enough to demand a degree of reciprocity and to assess them freely. The rhythm of the ending is masterly: the segue into the Carpenters – and the absurd specificity of that great long title, a very deliberate contrast with the final single syllable word of the passage. April, like the mother in Fenwick’s, has a drily pragmatic take on her child. Both women are shown to be free of partiality towards their children, a quietly radical move by Stibbe, given that the expectation of partiality feels like a simplification of the mothering role, and potentially another way of dismissing women – as incapable of impartiality, and always clouded by attachment.

Stibbe shows that a degree of detachment in familial relationships is inevitable and perhaps even to be desired, a necessary counter to the oppressive tangle of intense mutual need. It’s partly this loosening up of the obligations of kinship that explains the powerful sense of freedom that characterises all three novels, and humour is a crucial aspect of this; puncturing the sentiment that often surrounds family life and offering up a more honest and capacious commentary.

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