This book from the library has a quote on the cover from India Knight: ‘I’m putting Crooked Heart on the shelf of my most treasured books, between I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love …I couldn’t love it more.’
This is very misleading. If you were to think this book is remotely like either of those old favourites, or that it could hold the same place in your heart, you’d be doomed to disappointment. But, like Ms Knight, I did love this book; so much that I didn’t want to finish it.
It’s about wartime and people who live on the edge. Lissa Evans has a wonderful ability to evoke a sense of time and place and to create remarkable characters. I defy anyone not to fall for the child, Noel. At ten years old, he’s been living in Hampstead with his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette. She talks to him as if he were an adult so, not surprisingly, he’s very precocious for his age. Poland was being invaded and the summer holidays were almost over. On the Saturday before the start of the Michaelmas term, Noel went to the library. He had read every Lord Peter Wimsey on the shelves, and every Albert Campion. The tall librarian with the moustache suggested he tried a thriller instead of a detective story. ‘You’ll find Eric Ambler very good,’ she said.’ Mattie doesn’t want him to be evacuated and Noel doesn’t want to go. Eventually he has to and finds himself boarded with Vee in St Albans. Vee is a mercurial character who never has enough money and is always looking for ways to make more, not always honestly. She’s confused by Noel, whom she accuses of talking Latin at her, but finds that when it comes to managing in wartime, he’s sharper than she is.
There is another plotline, about Vee’s son and his dishonest activities but it’s the Noel/Vee relationship which matters. The book shows the other side of the ‘in the war we all pulled together’ memory which people like. This is a world of spivs, skivers and dishonest ARP wardens who steal from bombed houses. ‘Everybody’s at it,’ is the attitude. For all his apparent sophistication, Noel nearly gets himself into great danger, alone in London during the Blitz. Surprisingly, considering her usual selfishness, Vee worries about him: ‘He’s ten years old!’ She hunts for him and the odd couple find a way of creating a new life together. This book is funny, sad, poignant, utterly beguiling. I want everyone to read it.