When Noel Bostock – aged ten, no family – is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he ends up living in St Albans with Vera Sedge – thirty-six and drowning in debts and dependents. Always desperate for money, she’s unscrupulous about how she gets it.
Noel’s mourning his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette. Brought up to share her disdain for authority and eclectic approach to education, he has little in common with other children and even less with Vee, who hurtles impulsively from one self-made crisis to the next. The war’s thrown up new opportunities for making money but what Vee needs (and what she’s never had) is a cool head and the ability to make a plan.
On her own, she’s a disaster. With Noel, she’s a team.
Together they cook up an idea. Criss-crossing the bombed suburbs of London, Vee starts to make a profit and Noel begins to regain his interest in life.
But there are plenty of other people making money out of the war and some of them are dangerous. Noel may have been moved to safety, but he isn’t actually safe at all…
Every so often a book comes along that makes you want to thrust it into people’s hands and say “read this – it’s wonderful”. Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans was published by Doubleday (Transworld) on 6 November for Kindle and in hardback. As a quick look at the Amazon page will tell you, it’s already gathered a large number of impressive comments from people who certainly know about these things. Such praise sometimes worries me, and books sometimes just don’t live up to expectations – but this one exceeded every expectation I had.
The characters are simply perfect. Not just brittle and hard-edged Vee who later reveals a heart of pure gold, and poor awkward Noel, old way beyond his years and wanted by no-one, with his sticking-out ears and difficult ways. They are a magnificent pairing, with a story that will grab you and never let you go until you turn the last page, but the supporting characters are every bit as engaging. There’s Vee’s mother, who lost her power of speech when Vee’s son was born but writes wonderful letters to everyone from Winston Churchill to Arthur Askey about the realities of living through the war. Then there’s Vee’s son Donald, whose dodgy heart has helped him to avoid the draft, and now has a use for others. Noel’s godmother Mattie, the former suffragette with an unusual slant in her view of life, who appears only in the prologue and in Noel’s memories, is a superb creation.
There’s a vast cast here, every individual perfectly drawn, all leaping off the page – I’ve rarely read a story where the writer does such a good job of breathing life into characters who may only appear on the page for a very short time. The wartime setting is vividly and authentically created, full of domestic detail, unflinching in the way it portrays the human impact, and the human cruelty and nastiness that lurks beneath the “all pulling together” surface. The book is very, very funny at times – but it also succeeds in being desperately and heart-breakingly moving, with a story you’ll never forget.
I unreservedly loved it – without question one of my books of the year.
My thanks to netgalley and publishers Transworld for my advance reading e-copy.
After a brief career in medicine, and an even briefer one in stand-up, Lissa Evans became a comedy producer, first in radio and then in television. She co-created Room 101 with Nick Hancock, produced Father Ted, and co-produced and directed The Kumars at Number 42. She has written books for both adults and children, including Their Finest Hour and a Half, longlisted for the Orange Prize and Small Change for Stuart, shortlisted for many awards including the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Book Awards.