Reasons to Be Cheerful delivers laughs with real tenderness

From the dentist tackling his own teeth to the teens discovering a new form of contraception, Nina Stibbe’s characters are ridiculously touching

When Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to Be Cheerful won last year’s Wodehouse Bollinger prize for comic fiction, the judges explained that it was because it made them all laugh out loud. This quality was deemed all the more vital since the 2018 award had been withheld after nothing on that shortlist provoked audible yucks.

David Campbell, one of the 2019 judges and publisher at Everyman’s Library called Reasons to Be Cheerful “a comic tour de force. We were eager to find a book this year that would make each of the judges laugh out loud. Nina Stibbe has achieved that with aplomb.”

It seems at once a charming, correct and crazy way to judge a prize. Not all of us are ROFLers. Not all of us laugh at the same things. But how else to assess comedy?

Knowing that book is bound to tickle us into hoots also exerts uncomfortable pressure on the reading experience. When I picked up Reasons to Be Cheerful, I couldn’t help wondering whether I would still laugh out loud, knowing that I was meant to, and whether that would even be possible given current events.

Or at least, it did until I actually cracked the spine. My worries were knocked away by the opening description of a dentist trying to extract his own teeth while losing his ability to grip his instruments thanks to a self-injected dose of lignocaine. Stibbe had my full attention, and kept it for the next 275 pages. I’m even happy to report that I started laughing. The first little snort came when the narrator Lizzie relays her mother’s opinion that no host wants a guest to arrive on time: “A thoughtful visitor should always aim to be 15 minutes late and slightly drunk.”

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe, paperback book cover

Soon I was chuckling at a summary of the potential dangers of urban life in Leicester: “people trying to sell you things you didn’t need but would soon be addicted to – like feather boas, foreign cigarettes and ready-made sandwiches”. A Wodehouse-award-worthy belly laugh came when Lizzy explains how her friends adopted a new form of contraception after one of them accidentally discovered intercrural sex. If you’re wondering what that is, I firmly advise that you don’t Google it – just read the book, where you’ll be all the better able to appreciate just how exquisitely Stibbe lands the detail that “no one in a hurry could tell the difference”.

Encouraging you to read the book is also the best way I have to make you understand why it’s so funny. Most of the laughs are of the you-have-to-be-there variety. Explaining why they are amusing is like trying to catch the wind. There’s also more to the comedy than funny moments or clever phrasing. It relies not only on the cumulative effect of recurring themes and ideas, but on the way Stibbe builds up our affection for her characters.

JP Wintergreen, that lignocaine-favouring dentist, is a case in point. There’s plenty about him that’s absurd. Who would want to take him entirely seriously after Stibbe informs us that he has adopted the “European way” of arranging his trousers, “hoist high, with everything all down one leg”? Let alone after we see him hungrily slobbering over the cigarettes his assistant (and lover) Tammy feeds him, so his hands don’t smell of smoke when they’re near patients’ mouths. He’s also a cartoonish stereotype. Reviewers have pointed out that his sexism and racism seem custom-built to outrage 21st-century sensibilities. But JP also has real moments of vulnerability and humanity. Stibbe ensured that I pitied his insecurities, his inability to understand his girlfriend, his doomed desire to be accepted within the Freemasons. There’s something pathetically hopeless about him even when he says, “Don’t tell me I have to adopt a Biafran” after he’s told he needs to be more philanthropic to impress people in “the lodge”.

It’s this ability to make us empathise with even her worst characters that makes Reasons to Be Cheerful so effective. We can laugh with them as much as we laugh at them. We feel the moments of high silliness all the more because there is also real tenderness and, as the book goes on, genuine tragedy. We’re reminded that you can laugh even at the worst of times – a lesson I certainly appreciate right now.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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