As set-ups go, it’s hardly unique. An unhappy child is evacuated out of London to live with an adult who initially sees him as a hindrance. Eventually, with war blazing and bombs falling on the capital, both become reconciled to the idea. It’s the plot of Goodnight Mister Tom, more or less, and knowing that it would be told from an adult perspective, the premise felt a tad trite. So it wasn’t with greatly high expectations that I approached Crooked Heart; how original could this wartime tale possibly be? But as familiar as books about city urchins being evacuated to the countryside, rationing and the Blitz might be, Lissa Evans’ new novel is still full of surprises, and a genuine delight to read.
On the eve of the war we meet Noel, an improbably precocious and rather disdainful ten-year-old recovering from the loss of his beloved godmother, a former suffragette, wit and intellectual giant (and a character who deserves her own prequel, if the literary Gods are listening). Noel is insufferable and oblivious to social norms; hardly a foster parent’s dream.
To escape the bombs, the Hampstead-raised Noel is dispatched to St Albans; nowadays a commuter town, but then in the heart of the English countryside. The life this young urban sophisticate arrives to lacks any of the rustic charm and community spirit you’d expect from such a novel and the book is all the more enjoyable for it. This is Britain at war, but not the Britain of Digging for Victory, Victoria sponges or Blitz Spirit.
Instead, Noel’s new home is with Vee Sedge: a cynical and fairly ineffective small-time con-artist who has never quite moved beyond her chequered youth. She’s ungenerous, coarse and fairly mercenary. Naturally, they team up. Added into the mix is Donald, Vee’s unpleasant and indulged son, whose schemes are even less competent than those of his mother. There’s also Vee’s own mother, whose habit of writing letters to statesman and dignitaries baffles Noel but provides some wonderfully comic interludes for the reader.
On their own, Noel and Vee are curious characters; entertaining, but not necessarily likeable. As a pair, scheming and plotting, they are a joy. Their adventures – around St Albans and then as they race across the streets of North London – may be far-fetched but they are also absolutely gripping. And as events spiral, with Noel learning the true meaning of an act that is both right and wrong at the same time, you can’t help but cheer for them.
It’s a slight, rather silly book; I raced through it in a day or so. Likewise, the denouement is entirely implausible; the villain they face is comical rather than menacing, and I question any reader not to raise a sceptical eyebrow at the way that the loose ends are so neatly tied together by the final pages. But it’s also funny, and sweet, and reading it is a bit like eating a crumpet with lashings of jam by a fire; it warms your insides.
A wonderful, rollicking story that paints a vivid picture of wartime Britain, Crooked Heart deserves to fly off the shelves this winter.
Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart is published by Doubleday and is available to buy online here.