15 November 2014

Review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I was sent a copy of this book for review by Amazon Vine.

Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans
Doubleday, November 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

I loved Lissa Evans' previous novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half.  Like that book, "Crooked Heart" is set in Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War - and again, it follows the lives of ordinary people through that time, against the background of the London Blitz. Evans is good at describing the lives of people caught up in, or affected by, terrible events but without, directly, addressing those events: a refreshing approach, I find.

Ten year old Noel has been brought up in Highgate by his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie. She was a suffragette, and brings him up in a take-nothing-for-granted, fight -for-what-you-believe-in fashion. However, as war comes, bringing changes such as the erection of an anti-aircraft battery nearby on the Heath, Mattie becomes stranger and stranger - and one day, Noel finds himself quite alone. he has to leave his home and move in with his stuffy uncle and aunt (there is a slight frisson about just who Noel really is) before being evacuated from London to St Albans and placed in the care of Vee.

Vee is something of a chancer: she is already struggling to keep her family together -  a useless lump of a son and a Starkadder-like mother who had a nasty shock years before and never speaks who Vee  runs herself ragged keeping fed and clean.  Hard enough at the best of times, but a nightmare in wartime when you can queue for an hour at the fishmonger only to find that all the hake is gone at the end of it.

Noel and Vee are an ill assorted pair; it's clear Vee has taken him on for the sake of the ten shillings a week provided to foster parents, and for his ration book - while Noel is all closed in on himself, missing his godmother. The book shows very movingly, though, how the two grow together and begin to support one another, at first of necessity, but later - as things get darker and darker with an edge of real menace - from real affection and feeling.

The wartime background to this book isn't quite the one we're familiar with from countless cheery, we-can-take-it films and history books. Yes, we CAN "take it": everyone, it seems, is "on the take", stealing or creaming off what they can, some just to make ends meet, others with profit in mind. There are scams to avoid the call up, thefts by air raid wardens from empty homes, dodgy dealings with stolen fuel, fake charity collections, false identities... with the ceaseless bombing, queueing and shortages becoming almost like the weather, just something going on out there, to be accepted with a shrug.

That background does, though, suddenly loom terrifying close, demanding a response from both Vee and Noel. This all feels very real to me - people aren't heroes, at least not most of the time. And when they are, it's in the most unlikely ways.

A wonderful book.

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