Lois Keith on the novels of Helen Flint
Energy and Humour
Like many women, Helen Flint did not start writing until her youngest child was at school but she made up for it in the years that followed. Between 1987 and her early death in January 2000, she wrote three adult novels, a poetry collection and three novels for teenagers. Her semi autobiographical first novel, Return Journey, was published by Heinemann in 1987 and won the Betty Trask Award and this was followed by two more adult novels, In Full Possession, 1989, and Making the Angels Weep, 1992.
Her three teenage novels followed; Not Just Dancing, 1993, Not Just Babysitting, 1997, and Not Just Rescuing, 2002, have been reissued with what publishers describe as a ‘new cover look’, attractive and colourful, but which suggest a younger readership than the one Helen Flint probably intended. Her stories are concerned with the universals of teenage fiction: the desire to address serious issues with candour and wit, problems with adults (particularly argumentative and sometimes unreasonable parents or relatives), insecurity, young love which doesn’t always go smoothly and learning that life is ‘not just’ about one thing. Helen Flint became disabled as an adult and died in January 2000 at the age of 47 from a rare inherited degenerative disease. Disabled people and some of the issues they face find their way into her stories, but not always in ways the reader might expect.
One reviewer described Not Just Dancing as ‘a cross between Strictly Ballroom and Waiting for God’. Geraldine, a talented dancer, misses out on finding a work experience placement and has to spend the week working with her mother who is a Home Help. Her response to an encounter with disabled people is a conventional one. ‘Oh, lucky me. Lucky not to be blind or deaf or mute or limbless or spastic or wracked with pain – oh, lucky me to have endless opportunity for enjoying life!’ and she describes a disabled person she sees as having a face like ‘Fungus the Bogeyman’. But as the story develops, she gains insight to some of the insensitive, even hostile attitudes elderly and disabled people have to deal with and begins to genuinely care for two of her mum’s clients. Flint’s research on ballroom dancing gives energy and life to this part of the story (including a description of how you walk forwards while appearing to walk backwards in disco dancing) and the romantic subplot with her new dancing partner Sunil, a posh grammar school boy, is entertaining if a tad unlikely.
Not Just Babysitting is in many ways the most successful of the three books. It is set in Canada where Helen Flint lived as a student. Like her other books, the style is warm and lively, and the familiar elements – eccentric families, money worries, work, first love, the desire for happiness and stability – fit together very comfortably in this story. Sandra’s Eastern European father has just lost his job. Money is very short and so, together with her sister Meg and their mother, she decides to start a nursery at Beznobar, their magical, half built summer home. Beznobar is ‘our Sacred Place’, infused with the legends told by her Native Canadian mother. But their father passionately believes that everything that is wrong in the universe is because of childminding and so they have to lie to him. The nursery is a great success but the father feels betrayed and family harmony teeters on the edge of collapse. The story has strong secondary characters: Jason, an extraordinarily naughty under-five, and Paul, the rich wild boy next door. Sandra realises that she cares for Paul when he kisses Meg and then, confusingly, kisses her. What does this mean? The problem of how to interpret that thrilling but fleeting first kiss is well told in all three of the ‘Not Just…’ books.
Not Just Rescuing is the book that deals most directly with disability, and tells the story of Joanna and her disabled brother Ralph. The ‘rescuing’ in the title refers mostly to animal rescue when Joanna and her brother are sent to spend the summer with their eccentric and not obviously loveable aunt. Reluctantly at first, Joanna sets about rescuing and then releasing swans, flying pigeons and sundry lost kittens. There are acute and sometimes disturbing observations on what it must be like to be disabled and Joanna’s complicated feelings about her brother and the world’s response to him. ‘Everyone loves Ralph more than they love me… Sometimes, just for a moment, a nanosecond really, I wish I was the one in the wheelchair and needing rescuing.’ But like all books where a character’s story is told second-hand through a narrator, we learn more about Joanna’s take on disability rather than Ralph’s own view of the world.
Helen Flint brought energy and humour to her stories. Describing a dream she writes ‘Reality thumbs its nose at me by slowing down just when I most need to run or shout or warn someone – the floor becomes toffee, the air wool, the voice dead.’ Sadly true in her case, but these stories might well survive the test of time.
Not Just Dancing, 224pp, 0 7497 4604 1
Not Just Babysitting, 160pp, 0 7497 4605 X
Not Just Rescuing, 128pp, 0 7497 4163 5
Egmont Books, new editions 2002, £4.99 each pbk
Lois Keith’s most recent book is Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls (The Women’s Press).