Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage, which I loved, is a prequel to this brilliant, comic novel about bad behaviour during the Second World War.

We begin a little after Old Baggage left off, with eccentric ex-Suffragette Mattie Simpkin living just off Hampstead Heath with the small boy, Noel Bostock, she's sort of not-quite adopted. But Mattie's memory and wits are fast escaping her, and when war breaks out Noel is sent to St Albans with other evacuees. There, he's taken on by Vera Sedge, who thinks he might help earn some money in the latest of her ill-fated scams. But nerdy, lonely, grieving Noel has ideas about how to improve their takings...

Evans conjures a dirty, drab and distinctly criminal Blitz, where even the wardens are on the take - I think the most distressing, haunting moment is a woman being led off to an asylum while her house is robbed by the men ostensibly helping her. Life is hard even before the bombs start falling, full of tragedy and meanness and indifference. But as we weave our way through Noel and Vee's adventures, and those of Vee's own mother and son, there's the promise of something to light up the dark - hope of connection, perhaps even a little joy.

That's the gift here: so much of what happens is miserable, so much of what's described is viscerally horrible. And yet the character, the humour, the compassion shine through and make every page a delight.

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