I've been looking for a good love story to read, and sometimes love stories pop up in the most unlikely of places. As a matter of fact in Lissa Evans's Crooked Heart, it's the most unlikely of pairings that has elicited a happy sigh of contentment out of me. And while this was not exactly the type of love story I was looking for, it was a most satisfying one to read.
Crooked Heart was already on my wishlist of books to read, but when it made the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist I broke down and ordered a copy to have sooner than later. It's not set to be published in the US until this summer, but the UK edition can be had right now and at a discount. Sadly it did not make the shortlist, which was just revealed, but it is in every way an enjoyable and worthy read, so don't let that put you off.
Although I have read many novels set during WWII, I'm not sure I have ever read one that is properly and exclusively about a London evacuee. You expect a story like that to be happy and heartwarming and bring tears to your eyes perhaps. Those poor wee tots sent off to the countryside on their own leaving family behind in order for them to have a safe place to hole up for the duration of the Blitz. Okay, so they might be little London street urchins with scabby knees and dirty necks, but they are still likely to be plucky little mites. I mean you really do expect the whole "keep calm and carry on" attitude.
Well, Noel Bostock is not your average happy-go-lucky London evacuee. And Vera Sedge not really your typical practical country-woman. As a matter of fact all the characters in Crooked Heart are shall we say, very creatively drawn. The characters in this story are real Characters, warts and shortcomings all, and I liked them. Okay, some more than others, even the ones with the shortcomings. Maybe those most of all. Noel and Vee aren't at all unlikable, but they are sort of curious.
Noel has had a most interesting upbringing. His parents are dead and he has been brought up, in quite a Bohemian manner, by his godmother. Mattie has had a rich, full life and in her old age has turned into an eccentric. A former suffragette, oh the stories she can tell. But her memory is fading and her housekeeping skills haphazard at best. The two manage as best they can, she teaching Noel and he caring for his godmother. They actually do quite well together, even if by regular standards his education is lacking and the house a bit of a mess. Actually Noel is very much a smartie and knows it well. If you didn't know his background and heard him speak and realize just how knowledgeable he is, you'd think he was quite the posh little lad. Maybe even something of a snob, because he is fully aware of his abilities.
Between the two of them he has managed to avoid being evacuated once, but when Mattie is no longer able to care for Noel properly, he is made to go to the countryside with all the other London children. Disdainfully I might add. For the residents of St. Albans he's not the most appealing choice of children to take on. Besides the disdain he exudes and way he has of talking down to all and sundry, when he gets tired he walks with a limp.
He's certainly not the first choice for Vera, rather Vee, as she is known. The only real draw for her in taking in a child, and one with a limp and taciturn face, is the money that comes with him to put towards food, board and general care. Vee already has a full plate in her household. Along with a 'fragile' grown son, she also takes care of her mother, and neither provides much in the way of support--monetary or psychological. The former is more of a sponge and latter terribly demanding and no appreciation by either is shown.
Vee does her best, her best to make money anyway, but is never quite successful at any of it. She does well in coming up with ideas but lacks the skill in executing her plans. She gets too nervous. She has few scruples when it comes to her ideas, but she can never quite pull them off. She almost verges on heartlessness, especially when she decides Noel, with his occasional limp, pale coloring and bewildered expressions will make the perfect front when she goes out collecting money for worthy causes. The worthiest of causes for Vee is paying the rent and buying food.
Each alone, Noel and Vee, are in their own ways a complete disaster. But taken together? Pure genius. Convincing genius as a matter of fact. Vee has a plan and Noel tells her how to execute it and together they are off to London on the daily train to make their small fortune. There seems to be a lot of that going on. Unscrupulous, erm, business dealings. It's not just Vee and Noel. Vee's son, Donald, too, has his fingers in the pots. And when each crosses the wrong person and then they are tracked back to St. Albans, it all becomes a very mixed up messy affair and will any of them come out unscathed?
Crooked Heart is such a wonderfully curious story, charming in a not-your-traditional WWII-charming sort of way. Initially it's hard to think of either Noel or Vee in really fond terms, but by the end of the story you think they really do deserve each other--and I don't mean that in a "just desserts" sort of way. This is a delightful story with slightly black humor and I loved every page of it--quite literally. How long have I owned Lissa Evans's Their Finest Shining Hour and a Half which was also Longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009 (and why was it never published in the US?)? If you'll excuse me, I think I will go now and pull it from my shelves.
By the way--what do you think about the two cover illustrations? I do like the US version (top right), but I am not sure it exactly captures the tone of the story. The UK cover conveys a slightly darker feel which I think matches the story well. Now that the Shortlist is out, which to choose next? Since I already have both Ali Smith and Sarah Waters on my TBR piles . . .