The Book Club that I run at work, chose Crooked Heart as our first book for 2022. It was actually a re-read for me and it was a story that I was more than happy to revisit. Lissa Evans writes with such assuredness and precision that she seems to enable the reader to defy the physics of time and walk the blitz-damaged streets of north London alongside her protagonists. And what a cast of characters they are!
In the prologue we are introduced to Noel, a boy of 10 or 11, who lives in bookish bliss with his godmother, Mattie, in an airy villa on the edge of Hampstead Heath. His days are spent reading, visiting museums and engaged in stimulating, intellectual pursuits with his larger-than-life guardian until she falls under the curse of dementia. Within thirty pages of the most remarkable storytelling, Mattie’s personality arrives and departs, leaving her shadow hanging over the rest of the story from where tendrils will be woven in and out of the tale.
After a brief sojourn with an officious cousin of Mattie’s, Noel is evacuated from London alongside the rest of Rhyll Street Junior School as the Blitz begins in earnest. He is eventually taken in by Vee Sedge, a widow who lives from one small scam to the next, and who sees Noel with his limp and apparent muteness as a meal ticket for her small household. As he finds himself crammed into a small flat above a scrapyard with Vee’s self-indulgent son Donald and her invalid, deaf mother, Noel compares Vee to “a magpie hanging around a picnic” as she searches for scraps on which to feed, both physically and emotionally.
I absolutely love the way that this pair of misfits gradually develop a relationship and become partners in petty crime. Noel lending his intellectual and strategic mind to Vee’s money making scheme, so that she no longer finds herself “neck deep in consequences and drawbacks”. They, along with all the other characters in the book are truly nuanced, with Noel at one point arguing that what they are doing is “legally wrong but morally right”. He is a young boy, who as a consequence of his upbringing, often appears old beyond his years. However, his childlike sense of justice comes to the fore when he vows to avenge the crime that an air raid warden perpetrates on an old lady, who he himself has scammed.
The side plots are magnificently constructed too. Donald, like his mother, is a grifter and when his scheme goes awry causing him to abandon Noel in central London the consequence is a touching, deepening of the relationship between Vee and Noel. Old Mrs Sedge provides some of the funniest moments with her stream of letters to Churchill and other dignitaries, advising them on how to boost the morale of the nation!
I don’t think that I have read a book before where the behaviour of Londoners during WWII is portrayed as less than heroic but Lissa Evans manages to take you from outrage, to empathy; tears of sympathy, to snorts of laughter during this marvellous novel. Every character is fully formed, the story arc is absolutely perfect, set piece scenes are written with comic precision and the mix of pathos and humour is breathtaking. This book opened my eyes to the way that social class impacted the experience of those who lived through the war years, gave an insight into the aftermath of the suffragette movement and introduced me to characters who will live long in my heart. It is, without doubt, one of my all-time favourite books.