Susan and Norma meet while working in a haberdashery shop in small-town Leicestershire in the 1990s. The pair hit it off instantly, so Susan is surprised when the owner, who also happens to be Norma’s mother, assures her they’ll never be true friends.
As it turns out, awkward, single-minded Norma is there to exploit Susan’s literary acumen. She’s studied geology as an undergrad and is keen to switch to the arts for her masters; handily, Susan is a year into her own degree in English literature. While it seems destined to be forever shaped by its lopsided, transactional beginnings, they do indeed strike up a friendship, one that will endure for the next 30 years, its ebbs and flows shaping Nina Stibbe’s new novel as the women navigate marriage, motherhood and ambition.
It’s a departure from the trilogy that followed her autobiographical debut, Love, Nina, but there remains much here that’s pleasingly familiar, from its regional backdrop and period detail to its gossipy bookishness, which runs to Ian McEwan’s theft of pebbles from Chesil Beach and a cameo for a certain “Margaret A”. Above all, there’s the voice: idiosyncratic and droll, bittersweet and clear-eyed.
Susan – never Sue (“I’m like Susan Sontag in that respect,” she deadpans) – is the narrator. Talking is her way of coping with anxiety, yielding a richly digressive text with ample comic insights into everything from revenge (her brother uses his unfortunate wife as “a weapon with which he could punish the world for not respecting him the way it should”) to the difficulty of “nice” people (you always have to wonder if they “secretly despise you or feel bitterly jealous or just think you common but want someone to go to the cinema with”).
It’s notable that the haberdashers where the women met was called The Pin Cushion, a role that life seems intent on foisting upon Susan. Early on, she’s compelled to drop out of university. While Norma, who remains an enigmatic figure, goes on to have a glamorous academic career, Susan finds herself with a husband and child, yearning for nothing loftier than a pine front door (theirs is plastic) and a vegetable medley (she’s married a man who’ll eat only iceberg lettuce and baked beans).
Though Susan’s narrative style occasionally finds the novel ambling down cul-de-sacs (suburban dogging being one), Stibbe succeeds in depicting a character who truly evolves over the years. It’s not the crisply choreographed stuff of the classic bildungsroman, but instead a more gradual development driven as much by middle-age’s irascibility and impatience as by youthful dreams. Eventually, an administrative job at the local university (its motto provides the novel’s title) gets her once again within reach of the life that might have been hers.
If ever there were a time for reading Stibbe, it’s surely now. Not for nothing was her last novel titled Reasons to Be Cheerful. And yet while comparisons with Alan Bennett, Sue Townsend or even Victoria Wood remain apt, Stibbe applies her own darkly distinctive touches. In the grandest house in town, for instance, the only comfort comes from the distant rumble of lorries on the bypass. Its largely ridiculous owner is memorable for an ability to imitate a crying baby, leaving Susan wondering whether he’d simply never stopped. It was “authentic and haunting and somehow tragic”, all words that are applicable to the quirky, absurdist world created here.
Whereas Stibbe’s previous novels confined themselves largely to the past, One Day I Shall Astonish the World takes the reader up to the year 2020, via hashtags, gender-neutral pronouns and, of course, Covid. It’s here that its tone falters, albeit momentarily. It’s a measure of her skill as a writer that she manages to save the novel. After all, her heroines are used to having, for one reason or another, their prospects restricted, so it’s perhaps no surprise that when faced with lockdown, Susan should at last come into her own, breaking into print in her 50s just like Stibbe herself.