I’ve never knowingly seen in action how a book becomes a word-of-mouth best-seller – the dream of all writers whose books are not (yet) advertised on 10-foot-high billboards by their publishers. So I was intrigued when I first became aware of the insistent whispering and tweeting about Lissa Evans’ Second World War novel, Crooked Heart. Words like “wonderful” and “unmissable” were being very freely bandied about. Was this it?
I quickly bought it, read it, loved it, and volunteered to review it. Just in time, too. On March 10, Crooked Heart was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Who knows, by April 13, it might well have stormed on to the shortlist, too, and even, by the final on 3 June … ?
Stop. I’d better leave it to the judges to make that decision. Meanwhile, here’s the story, in case you want to read Crooked Heart too.
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…
I found plenty to love in this book. As well as the unlikely pairing of Vee and Noel working so surprisingly well, I loved the unsentimental way that the backdrop to their relationship is a wartime north London stripped of the heroics that so often overwhelm war stories. Here, instead, the mood is all scrimp and pinch and, if possible, scam. Lissa Evans sketches in the sadness and disappointment that lie behind this mercenary cast of mind with the lightest of touches. It’s the kind of story that could so easily turn to schmaltz, but the acid wit of her narrative pulls it back from the brink every time.
The book has plenty of unevenness, too. Flaws, even, though they’re the charming kind that remind you how attractive the story is overall. For instance, although the relationship between Noel and Vee is drawn with real sensitivity, there’s an almost comic-book shallowness to the two pairs of minor characters – the Harry-Potter-Muggle-ish uncle and aunt who might have taken in a reluctant Noel if he hadn’t managed to dodge them, and the selfish grown-up son and mother who prey on Vee, just as assorted neighbours, ill-wishers and ex-beaux have done in the past.
But, oddly enough, that superficial treatment felt fine to me, as the parts of the book featuring these people had a mocking, almost slapstick quality which meant I didn’t mind, too much, if one or two of them came a bit unstuck.
Another odd bit of construction is that the most moving story in the book isn’t the main one, of Noel and Vee learning to rub along together. It’s the beautifully observed prelude, in which Noel can do nothing to stop the brave, feisty, and utterly honest Mattie, whom heloves, gradually succumbing to the confusion of old age, and being lost. Mattie is dead by the time the “proper” story begins, though Noel’s memory of her, and his sense of loss, hangs over the rest of the book.
But, again, that sense of wartime dislocation from the real, nobler feelings known before is, in an important way, what the wartime story is about, and constructing the book’s plot like this perhaps a strength rather than a weakness, after all. Noel’s remembered knowledge of love is the touchstone by which he, and we, recognises authenticity and goes on knowing it to be different from all the various wartime ersatz substitutes offered in its place.
And that is, in the end, what he – and Vee – have to hold on to, as they finally find a way forward.
If you would like to read Crooked Heart, as it enjoys word-of-mouth success and before it becomes a prize-winning best-seller, hurry … there are only days to go before the Bailey Prize shortlist is announced on April 13.