Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans; Doubleday, £12.99 hardback
In her enthusiastic cover puff for Lissa Evans’ novel Crooked Heart, India Knight (novelist, columnist, and Mitford aficionado) compares it to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. So did it measure up to those two classics of comic writing (which are among my personal favourites)?
In a word, yes.
Set in and around London during World War II, Crooked Heart is the story of ten-year-old Noel Bostock, who lives in Hampstead with his increasingly fragile godmother, the redoubtable Mattie, a former suffragette and eternal iconoclast. As the elderly woman succumbs to dementia, Noel’s future looks more and more imperiled.
In the end, he’s evacuated to St Albans, where he’s scooped up by Vera Sedge, a woman on the edge – of middle age, of respectability, of lawfulness, of poverty. She supports her layabout son and her mute, seemingly helpless mother, mostly through a series of low-level swindles, and a succession of menial jobs. Initially she appears to be a heartless opportunist, plucking Noel out of the evacuee crocodile because she reckons his limp will earn her extra benefits. But Evans teases out Vee’s story, demonstrating that her hard carapace, formed by years of difficulties, is only eggshell thick and easily cracked.
Noel is her intellectual superior, but even though he can’t stop himself from correcting other people’s ignorance, he’s never one of those precocious children so often found in films and books, whose sassy ways go from cute to toe-curling in the space of a few minutes. No, he’s a lovely wee chap, full of spunk but oh-so-lonely, and with the kindest of hearts, especially where dotty old ladies are concerned.
They join forces and crisscross London’s outer reaches perpetuating a fundraising swindle that accidentally steers them towards danger that’s almost as perilous as the bombs exploding overhead.
Lissa Evans maintains her light touch – she never belabours a point or over-expains — and all of her characters are, well, characters. She has an enviable turn of phrase. Describing the evacuation: “The day after that, all the children disappeared, as if London had shrugged and the small people had fallen off the edge. Noel, running an errand, was stared at in the street.”
Of school: “Noel found himself thinking about Dr Long, who taught algebra and physics, and who presented each new law or principle to the class as if he were lifting a jewel out of a casket. Dr Long expected interest and asked for wonder, unlike Mr Clegg, whose Geography lessons were like a series of punishments. Thirty strokes with the principal exports of the Malay Peninsula.”
Of Vee: “The lines around here eyes were like peg-marks on a dried sheet.”
The story races along at a cracking pace and ends satisfactorily for the reader who loses his or her own crooked heart to Noel and Vera. How much did I enjoy this? Enough to invest in Evans’ back catalog!