REVIEW: Crooked Heart: A Novel by Lissa Evans
Paper Moon meets the Blitz in this original black comedy, set in World War II England, chronicling an unlikely alliance between a small time con artist and a young orphan evacuee.
When Noel Bostock—aged ten, no family—is evacuated from London to escape the Nazi bombardment, he lands in a suburb northwest of the city with Vera Sedge—a thirty-six-year old widow 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. Wise beyond his years, raised with a disdain for authority and an eclectic attitude toward education, he has little in common with other children and even less with the impulsive Vee, who hurtles from one self-made crisis to the next. The war’s provided unprecedented 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 a scheme. Crisscrossing 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. . . .
Dear Ms. Evans,
A friend who has wonderful taste in books recommended that I try one of your other books but as the sequel to this one is due out soon, I decided to start here. What a fabulous book. The humor is dry and sardonic, no one is perfect, threads weave back and forth before being wonderfully twisted together, and best of all, I had no idea what was going to happen next.
Before ten year old Noel Bostick ends up with Vee Sedge, we see him in his last days with his outspoken godmother Mattie. Mattie was once a suffragette and has retained her vim and independence. She’s brought up Noel to think for himself, challenge authority, and march to the beat of his own drummer. Naturally this doesn’t make him popular at school but Noel could care less. When Mattie shows signs of dementia, Noel begins to worry. When he realizes she’s walked out into a cold, winter night, he is terrified.
Without being told, we know that Mattie has died and Noel is now living with her nephew and his wife. The two of them form a suffocating bond of love and live conventional lives. There is no place there for Noel and frankly everyone is relieved when Noel is evacuated with other children to St. Albans. There he is taken in by a beaten down woman who is permanently exhausted looking after her shiftless relations and desperate to find her next shilling. Vee sees Noel looking as if he’s limping and gets a half formed idea of involving him in some scheme to earn money.
Vee’s problem is that she never thinks things all the way through. When she takes Noel along with her to scam money through asking for donations, he coolly points out all the flaws in how she handled it then methodically researches how to do it better and more profitably. Vee finds herself amazed by his intellect and more than a little taken aback by how sharp he is. Together they’re soon cleaning up and for the first time in her life, Vee owes nothing and feels ahead of the game. But what she doesn’t know about her worthless son, demanding mother, and something from Noel’s past are about to land on her like one of Goering’s bombs.
I loved the subtle black humor that is sprinkled all through the story. It had me laughing and chuckling even when scenes are dark or sad. It was also wonderful not to have everything spelled out ahead of time. Instead situations are carefully crafted and revealed slowly with little details added bit by bit. Some things are casually mentioned only to become important later on. I love it when I have “aha!” moments rather than “yeah that was telegraphed repeatedly for the past five chapters.”
As I said, no one is perfect. Instead the characters are three dimensional and fully formed even if they’re only bit players. The main characters leap or slither off the page – depending on their nature – and I can both see and hear them. Mrs. Sedge the elder writes endless letters – some to Churchill offering advice on how to fix up the situation in England, while son Donnie has something going on that he keeps carefully hidden from his mother even as he sits and silently demands he be waited on hand and foot by overworked Vee. Noel has developed his own writing code with which he denigrates the bratty bullies in his classes and poor Vee seems as if she’s never caught a break in her life. They are products of their lives and of course will do exactly as they do.
Some of the characters might indeed have crooked hearts but a few of them also have good hearts. Through them we see the daily grind and struggle that most working class people face but with a war ladled on top of that. Vee comes to realize some things about the people she’s tried to take care of but also about herself. Noel discovers that Vee might not be like his beloved Mattie but that she is also someone who comes to care about him, let him be himself, and about whom he begins to care. I found myself cheering for these two misfits who often act in unloveable ways. It’s a tightly plotted story that sparkles with wicked, comic relief and which burrowed its way into my heart yet was never treacly. I can’t wait for what Vee and Noel get up to next. A-