Lissa Evans’ fourth novel, Crooked Heart, brings to the table a new story with old bones. Set in World War 2 England, one would expect it to be another historical drama, rife with tales of heroism and loss, of tragedy and hope. As you traverse the pages however, you find humour in the place of sadness and playfulness in the place of seriousness. Evans’ background in children’s books and comedy shines through in this surprisingly light-hearted and charming book.
Noel Borstock, the ten year old grandson of wealthy ex-suffragette Mattie is sent to St. Albans to escape the Blitz in London. Noel, whose “book-smarts” and independence make him quite the unpopular boy at school, teams up with thirty six year old Vera Sedge, known as Vee, a woman who juggles caring for her mute mother and chronically lazy son while managing her dwindling finances and her self inflicted crises. The two form an unlikely partnership; Noel’s unusually calm demeanour and seriousness for a young boy conflicts with Vee’s erratic, often energetic and nervous nature, creating many humorous confrontations. While the war may destroy opportunities for many, Vee and Noel find their fortunes turning as they swindle the kind-hearted folk of their neighbourhood through a shared love of quiet thrills and adventure.
Evans’ playful tone and warming narration turn a war-torn England into a perilous and unusual adventure. Though ravaged by conflict, Evans paints World War 2 England in an almost comically casual way, with blackout regulations and evacuation seen more as an inconvenience than a necessity. While many historical dramas portray the war as a time of hardship and resilience, Crooked Heart takes a surprisingly different approach. The novel portrays the main characters warmly as being happier to go about their daily lives as if nothing has changed, the normality only undermined by the unlikely duo’s absurd schemes of money-making.
Employing idioms from that time, Evans portrays the environment with casual accuracy without getting lost in the details. Escapees of London are called “vaccies” and families gather to “listen over the wireless.” The story’s setting is rendered with an immediacy as if written while awaiting an air raid siren or packing belongings for evacuation. War time tales of filtering dyed government petrol or passing off whale meat as cod remind us that while the characters of Crooked Heart are content to go about their daily lives, the world is falling apart.
Despite the heroics of World War 2, Evans portrays our protagonists as deeply flawed and morally incorrect denizens, not quite saints or criminals. Like snake oil vendors, Vee and Noel use their deceptiveness and cunning to outwit the citizens of St. Albans. As they con their would-be donors into handing over what little they have to a bogus “Dunkirk widows and orphans collection”, you may still find yourself effortlessly falling in love with the scamming duo: Vee a caring mother, frequently gives up her rations for her lazy son and Noel is just a young boy looking for adventure and motivation after the loss of his closest family members. Through their partnership we see the two of them blossom as characters, branching out from the darkness of their unfortunate situations: Noel finding renewed hope and motivation in life and Vee realising the joys of caring for the young boy.
Despite at times bordering on the absurd, Crooked Heart still offers a charmingly easy and investing read, with lively and appealing characters .While filled with the hardships of war, Evans also presents us with a fun and joyous ride, a refreshing approach to the traumas of war.