Crooked Heart | Lissa Evans | Black Swan | 2014 (Pb 2015) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book
Noel Bostock might be only ten years old but he’s lived an unusual life. An orphan, he was brought up by his strong-spirited godmother Mattie. Mattie was a suffragette and never one to obey the rules. Her disdain for authority – and education – most definitely rubbed off on her young charge as they lived their own way in Mattie’s large Hampstead house. Until Mattie began to lose her words and then her memories and finally her life. Noel was moved to the home of Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery – not his relatives, but Mattie’s distant cousins – and, if war hadn’t have broken out in 1939, it’s likely that we would never have heard of Noel again. He would eventually have been squashed by this new regulated, cold life forced down on his shoulders. But war meant that Noel was evacuated to the relative safety of St Albans and it was there that he came under the care of Vee Sedge. A woman less suited to caring for a young evacuee would be difficult to imagine.
Noel continues, probably without knowing what he’s feeling, to grieve for Mattie. Vee has money problems – not to mention mother problems and son problems. When Vee decides to use Noel in her money-raising schemes she soon discovers that if anyone has the brains to make this work it’s not her, it’s Noel. And so begins the tale of an unusual partnership between two lonely people who have lost the ability to trust but aren’t going to take the world’s punches lying down.
Crooked Heart is a wonderfully fitting title for this warm, compassionate and humorous novel. In this wartime story, there is as much crookedness as there is heroism, probably much more. There is crime going on at these bombsites, the innocent are being exploited and there is no doubt that Mattie and Noel’s schemes are thoroughly dishonest, just like lots of other peoples. But there are ramifications, some good, some terrible, and it is these that shape the novel and the characters and relationship of Vee and Noel. We might not cheer on their plots and schemes but we grow to care very deeply indeed for this damaged pair of lovable rogues.
Lissa Evans’ writing is enchanting. It is deceptively light, the humour a joy but not overdone, contrasting with its moments of darkness and sadness. The character portraits are superb and not just Mattie and Noel’s. There are a host of people, villains and angels, who come and go through the pages and they all leave their mark, their own stories, their own worries, their dreams. I was particularly touched by the gently recurring theme of the suffragettes. The heroism and sisterhood of these women is a vital part of Noel’s growing up.
Noel is adorable. He might be a pain in the neck at times – and it did take me a little while to warm to him – but once the real Noel began to emerge I was completely captivated. During the second half of the novel in particular Noel comes into his own. Lissa Evans has created a treasure.
Crooked Heart is a fantastic portrait of London and its suburbs during the Blitz. You can really sense the fear as the sirens sound and men and women take their lives into their hands as they scramble through pitch black streets to safety or disaster. Putting a child into this lethal environment seems especially worrisome. But there is a strong feeling that everyone is out of their depth, not just the children. And alongside the little achievements are tragedies. Crooked Heart is an increasingly moving and intense novel that never loses its sense of humour. It is also incredibly difficult to put down. The pages fly through the fingers. Crooked Heart is an absolute delight.