Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, book review: A crisp approach creates genuine pathos

A wartime tale of an unlikely duo benefits from Evans' delightful tone

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The Independent Culture

An odd couple tale, Crooked Heart charts the relationship between a young orphan evacuee, Noel, sent to St Albans during the Second World War to live with Vera Sedge, who’s already struggling to make ends meet caring for her indolent son and mute mother.

Rattling with nervous energy, Vee is resourceful, if a little unscrupulous, in her money-making schemes. Noel, a 10-year-old “walking dictionary”, seems cut from quite a different cloth: raised in Hampstead by a rich but anti-authoritarian Suffragette godmother Mattie, he’s a rarefied and precocious creature.

Soon, however, Noel and Vee become a team, his youth and bookishness providing a neat foil for her quick-thinking – or overly hasty – blags. Written with brisk light-heartedness, we root for the pair of unfortunates – even when they ought to be losing our sympathy by conducting fake collections for the war effort ....

The reader is just as swayed by this double act as the people they’re diddling. Evans tidily unfolds a satisfying plot, which mirrors Noel’s interest in crime novels, as the rascal turns righteous returner of stolen property. But it’s the over-arching development of the lost little boy and the harried woman’s affection and admiration for one another that really tugs the reader’s own heart crooked. This arc may be obvious and inevitable from the moment they meet, but there’s great galloping joy in it. 

Evans has a delightful tone, airy and bouncy as a good Victoria sponge but with a perceptive irony and a spattering of caustic details stirred through. It recalls carefully constructed, deceptively light comic novels by the likes of Stella Gibbons and Nancy Mitford.

Crooked Heart is steeped in its historical moment, and Evans’s use of the idiom of the era is particularly convincing: people “snuff” rather than “sniff”, say “ta everso”, and are called “a card” or a “fancy woman”. There are revealing details about the wheezes people pulled too, from whale meat sold as cod to filtering dyed government petrol through loaves of bread.

But Evans never lets the period detail overwhelm her story – and, crucially, she doesn’t over-sentimentalise it either.  The war is not presented as a time of sacrifice and everyday heroics; rather, most people rub along, and a few are aggressively on the make.

And while the horror of war is tilted at, it’s also often a source of laughter in the dark: the casualty of an air raid is a comically flattened chicken, while serious injury is inflicted by a clumsy ambulance driver carelessly opening a door. It’s a refreshingly crisp approach, that allows moments of genuine pathos to be all the more resonant.