In brief: Noel is sent from London as an evacuee during World War II. He is taken in by Vee (mainly for the money), but they develop an unlikely partnership based on their strengths.
The good: It puts the reader squarely in the time period. I really felt I was there, lurking outside Vee and Noel’s flat.
The not-so-good: A really bad book hangover from this one, it’s so good.
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
Publisher: Random House
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
I started reading Crooked Heart with some trepidation – while I had enjoyed Lissa Evans’ previous book, Their Finest Hour and a Half, I didn’t adore it. But determined to read more of the Baileys Prize longlist this year and with a weekend of reading ahead of me, I decided to start it and see how things went. The weekend and the book passed by in a flash. Crooked Heart is so good that I had a big book hangover after finishing it (meaning that I couldn’t get it out of my head, and every book I opened palled in comparison). It’s just plain wonderful and I hope that it makes the shortlist.
The premise of the book is simple – it’s about a boy, Noel, who is one of the evacuees from London during World War II. Vera (Vee) reluctantly takes him in and they find that they are pretty good business partners, and eventually, might even be friends. There’s a subplot about Vee’s son Donald, doing a little bit of sly work that ends with him in trouble and there’s some history of the suffragettes through Noel’s godmother Mattie and a lady he and Vee meet in London. The book is so rich in atmosphere that I really felt that I was inhabiting Noel and Vee’s world, from the sights of bombed out London to the confusion as Noel’s class is moved to the country.
Noel and Vee are unique characters, not overly likeable at first but as they opened up to each other, I could see more of their good features. Noel is an orphan, taken in by his godmother Mattie. She’s getting very forgetful and Noel starts taking care of her when Mattie disappears one night. Relations of Mattie’s take him in, but it’s not long before he ends up alone again in the country. Noel’s more bookish and independent than his peers, but he’s got a cunning streak and a good head for business (despite being 10 years old). Vee is a woman who has always been in trouble for some reason or another. She’s always after a quick quid or two (to the point of taking out life insurance on her elderly neighbour) but she doesn’t have the ability to stick at her plans. She’s tough, but she needs someone like Noel to steady her and give her confidence. The pair of them devise plans to make some quick money, but when a fellow suffragette is robbed, Noel is very upset. He wants Vera to be the adult, and make things right but it’s near impossible for her to do so. Noel’s not above pulling a few sneaky tricks himself, and evades Donald to hide in London. But by now Vee knows Noel, and she sets off after the little boy she only took in for the money. This part was quite emotional as the pair realise that they mean something to each other. And the ending? Well, it’s perfect for this pair and makes complete sense.
I thought the parts of the narrative that dealt with war, such as the bombing of London, bomb shelters and the aftermath were incredibly well done. The words took the reader right into the story and the setting at the time. I could sense the unease and fear as strangers huddled together in Tube stations, ears pricked for each bomb that fell. It’s simply amazing that Lissa Evans has evoked those feelings in such few words. This is a fantastic book, highlighting ordinary lives (doing not so ordinary things) during the war. If all the books on the Baileys Prize longlist are of such a high calibre, I’m in for a treat.