Lucky Bunny, By Jill Dawson

Stealing up on the 20th century
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The Independent Culture

When I heard that Jill Dawson's seventh novel was about a fictional female East End thief in the mid-20th century, I feared that the gifted writer might be wasted on a topic more suitable for EastEnders. I was wrong.

Dawson, as ever, delves deep into her subject matter, combining fast-paced narrative with astute, piercing reflection on more complex matters.

Dawson has combined fiction and fact previously in Fred and Edie, Wild Boy and The Great Lover. In Lucky Bunny, the fictional narrator, street-smart, plucky Queenie Dove, weaves among real-life events and people from the shady underworld of the era. Raised in a chaotic household by an alcoholic mother and a criminal father whom she idolises, Queenie is initiated into a life of crime by a gang of good-time girls who teach her how to shoplift while posing as a charming and affluent customer.

Confident from the start, Queenie's account of her life, told in retrospect, is initially scathing about her mother, calling her "lazy" and "a slattern". Characteristically for Dawson, it is only once the reader has been hooked that the characters' vulnerabilities are exposed, and their pain and emotions revealed.

Queenie's conflicts include guilt about her mother's fate, and about reconciling her attraction to expensive material possessions with her memories of her poverty-stricken nan, who showered her with love.

Dawson's research into the period is impeccable: everything from shared outdoor lavatories to sleazy Soho nightlife is vividly evoked, and the small details – Nan's mouth bulging with bullseyes; the Second World War posters that urge "Keep mum, she's not so dumb!"; the variety of ways in which men fraudulently avoided enlistment – transport the reader.

Queenie's voice is hypnotically authentic. From her childhood memories ("silver coins tasted bitter and pennies tasted like blood") to her rebellious teenage years, her account is as convincing as any memoir.

Occasionally, Dawson underestimates her reader. For example, when a nightclub manageress mentions a back therapist called Stephen, it's a thrill to realise that this is the real life Stephen Ward of the Profumo scandal. So it's not necessary for Dawson then to spell out his surname, nor to make the later reference to him when Christine Keeler crops up.

Still, if over-conscientiousness is one's only criticism of a novel, one is on to a winner.