Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

  1. Sensitive, enjoyable review, Simon. I enjoyed this book very much–though not quite as much as Old Baggage, which is more recent, but tells the story of Noel and Mattie. The new novel shares the same qualities as Crooked Heart but is even more poignant. I was especially moved by its consideration of what happens to progressives when the work they accomplished gets taken for granted. I think you’d enjoy it a lot. BTW I recommend you follow Evans on Twitter. She’s funny and has a fine looking dog!

    • Thanks, Dorian. Yes, I’d heard that the prequel is also good. And I do follow Lissa E on Twitter – and agree that she’s as entertaining there as in her fiction!

  2. I’m a bit tempted.
    My father was a war-time evacuee – and he could tell a tale or two about the exploitation too. He and his younger brother were used as household help by an unscrupulous pair in service and it wasn’t long before they decided to take their chances with the bombs.
    So I think it’s good that the underbelly of evacuation is being explored in fiction.

    • My mother as a very young woman helped run a hostel for evacuees in the countryside during the war – definitely above board and kind. Little city kids who’d never seen a cow. Lissa E is unflinching in her depiction of that seamy exploitative side of things, but always with an awareness of redeeming features- in Vee, anyway. Donald is pretty irredeemable but essentially spoilt and lazy, not evil. Mattie is a wonderful creation – I look forward to hearing more of her back story in Old Baggage

  3. Loved this book to. A great review, I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure at first, but persevered and it was well worth it.

  4. I’m tempted by this as well, particularly given the WW2 setting – always a selling point for me. It’s actually been on my radar for a while, ever since I read Their Finest a couple of years ago. Are you planning to go on and read Old Baggage? I’d be interested to know.

    • The wartime setting is well done, seen from non-combatant points of view. The London scenes in the Blitz are excellent. I’ve not read FHour, but saw the film, which I thought so-so; I daresay the novel is better – usually the case. I shall try to fit in Baggage at some point, hopefully before long while this one is still fresh in the memory

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