Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
Sometimes it seems like so such WWII fiction has been published that even stories set during the London Blitz all start to feel too familiar. Then a story comes along like Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans and I see things from an entirely new perspective. True, this is another tale about a London boy sent to live in the safety of the countryside, but the characters are unlike any others I’ve read about. Noel is a quiet and precocious child who is living with his feisty former-Suffragette godmother Mattie in London until she begins suffering severely from the onset of dementia. With only the most tangential relations left to care for him, he sets out for a rural town where he is paraded through the streets with other children by a billeting officer until he’s spotted by a woman named Vee. She takes him into her home, not for the good of the cause, but for the ten and sixpence a week she’ll get for housing him. Vee has many responsibilities caring for her partially-invalid mother, who spends her days writing amusingly earnest letters to Churchill and son in his young adulthood, who escaped the draft due to a heart condition. At first she is perplexed by Noel’s oddities, remarking “he was like one of those fancy knots, all loops, no ends.” But gradually she comes to respect his intelligence and emotionally-guarded manner. Vee and Noel make a curious pair who form an unscrupulous alliance that lead them on an emotional journey.
The author also has a refreshing way of conjuring the time period through evocative sensory experiences. I particularly appreciate how Evans creates particularly strong feelings for the besieged city through the sense of taste. With descriptions of unseasoned boiled potatoes being consumed in an air raid shelter or a handful of London water which tastes of pennies or the red grit of brick dust which crusts a character’s tongue, the reader is drawn into the civilian experience of war-time. So when a line as short and abrupt as “This fog had been a house” comes, it’s made to feel all the more tragic because the imagined sensations of those flavours are still on your tongue. It makes the devastation feel immediately real. My only criticism of the writing style is that in certain scenes set in public spaces the arrangement of characters becomes somewhat disorientating so it’s difficult to follow the action that’s happening. However, the novel overall moves in well arranged segments that build tension and draw you into the dramatic experiences of the protagonists.
What’s particularly successful is the different slant Evans takes on the attitudes of her characters in this time period. Whether its homes left unattended because of bomb scares, citizens too eager to donate money for good causes or young men desperate to avoid being taken into the armed forces, the war unintentionally opened up opportunities for people with morally-dubious sensibilities to take advantage and profit. What’s more is that there is a sense from the response by the police and authorities in the novel that they are so overwhelmed by the dramatic societal shift caused from the war that they don’t have the time or resources to deal with non-life-threatening incidents of crime. Far from alienating them from the reader, the sometimes selfish attitudes of the characters portrayed makes them more human and relatable. It’s very different from the purely virtuous or outrageously hateful WWII characters that you find in many war novels. The characters in Crooked Heart are endearingly flawed with emotionally-damaged pasts which impinge upon their judgement and actions.
The way in which the central characters come to rely and care for each other seems particularly relevant for this time period. Although neither Noel nor Vee’s families are affected by the current war they are left isolated like many people during this time when society was being shaken down by the strain of conflict and restrictions of rationing. Driven out of their normal circumscribed existence, chance encounters brought people together out of necessity. While Noel and Vee form a relationship at first out of need they soon discover a kinship which redefines the traditional meaning of family. Crooked Heart delves into the private lives of people living through the horrors of war showing you a refreshingly different perspective. At one point it’s remarked that “There were bombs outside, but inside was worse.” This novel confronts people who aren’t invested with the cause of the war so much as their own personal survival and overcoming private difficulties. It’s exciting reading how Evans incorporates elements of the Blitz to draw their priorities into focus.
Lissa, Evans, Crooked Heart (Doubleday: London, 2014). 0385614330, 288pp., hardback.
Eric blogs at LonesomeReader. Even though he’s American, the thought of being a boy who is whisked away from London during the Blitz in order to live under the protection of strangers in the countryside terrifies him – unless his guardians are like Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.