Sceptre, £17.99, 292pp. £15.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Lucky Bunny, By Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson's vivid seventh novel is the picaresque tale of the childhood and later career of Queenie Dove, a female criminal. Born in 1933, Queenie flowers as a con artist and thief in the fragile new wealth and glamour of late 1950s and early 1960s London, finding her apotheosis as one of the never-traced participants in the Great Train Robbery of 1963.

But Queenie begins life in utter squalor in Poplar, her dad Tommy a gorgeous, black-browed crook, her mum Moll an alcoholic, resentful former beauty. Tommy loves Moll but also beats her in explosions of rage that terrify Queenie and her monkey-like younger brother, Bobby. They still adore Dad, for the stolen fun and luxury he brings into their lives when he is not in prison. "Normality" rips apart when an unexplained incident leaves Queenie's baby sister scalded to death. Queenie is permanently marked both by guilt and a sense of responsibility for little Bobby, whose OCD and colour phobias stem from the fearful world he grew up in.

So far, so grim – but the book turns into a tide-race of adventure once Queenie is forced to turn to theft. It doesn't matter that her IQ is tested at a genius-level 180; class still has the country in its clumsy crab-claws, and no one from her background could possibly be that clever. Queenie shines at confidence tricks because she's a great storyteller and actress. Much of the narrative pleasure comes from her escapades "rolling" customers in night-clubs and stealing from upmarket shops where the assistants eat out of her hand, dazzled by her sheen of stolen money, elocution-trained vowels, fur-coat and sunglasses. The adrenalin rush of crime energises the narrative with spurts of fear and desire.

But Queenie's hurt heart lets her down. She steals carelessly to alleviate the emptiness inside; nemesis, and the law, are waiting for her. Not just the law but the law of eternal return, for Queenie falls for a beautiful black-eyed, black-haired Maltese crook called Tony, a charismatic, violent clone of her father. The scenes where Queenie struggles valiantly to survive Tony have the reader rooting for this rougher-edged, 20th-century Becky Sharp.

For me the novel's ending was a let-down, partly because Dawson's decision to fictionalise the Great Train Robbery forces her into a series of apologies ("who exactly was there and who did what was never agreed"). But she leaves us with some unforgettable images: some horrifying, like the wartime night when dozens of Londoners were crushed to death in the underground as they tried to flee German bombs, some beautiful, like the way Queenie's newborn baby's eyes change in days "from inky blue to the blue of a mussel shell to a lighter, more astonishing colour, vivid as a thread of blue ice in snow". Lucky Bunny is admirable, too, for the way its fizzing narrative is grounded in a cool-eyed awareness of the social and sexual injustices of the mid-20th century.

Maggie Gee's memoir 'My Animal Life' is published by Telegram

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