It is Friday afternoon, time to write my thoughts on another Bailey’s longlist title, so I open my trusty notebook at the relevant page and I find…nothing. Not a word. Only a heading, Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, written in purple ink (with the election campaign at full throttle I realise my choice of ink colour is somewhat unfortunate, but rest assured I also possess a rather nice shade of green.) I am new to blogging, as you probably know, and yet in this short period of time I have learnt something about my note-taking habits: the more I enjoy a book, the less I write; the less I enjoy a book, the more I scribble.
Without my notes to fall back on I conjure up impressions, write them down – moving, heartwarming, delightful – which is all well and good, but if I came across a review containing this banal set of adjectives I would imagine it to be exactly the kind of book I wouldn’t want to read. Crooked Heart may indeed be moving and delightful, but it is far funnier and blacker than these hastily plucked adjectives imply.
Noel Bostock is a ten year old orphan who lives in London with his godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who has a somewhat unconventional approach to life. Noel adores Matttie, but her memory is starting to fail and he is forced to take on more responsibility as her health deteriorates. War is declared and, without wanting to giving too much away, Noel is evacuated to St Albans.
Vera (Vee) lives in St Albans with her mute mother and her only son Donald, a shiftless ne’er-do-well. Vee is forced to live by her wits but is none too successful. She decides to take in Noel, not out of the goodness of her heart, but because she sees in the limping, sickly and apparently simple boy, a money-making opportunity. Noel may indeed limp and his ears may stick out, but he is far from simple, as Vee soon discovers. The grieving, precocious Noel eventually helps Vee to fill the household’s coffers, but not in the way she had imagined.
Crooked Heart is witty and poignant and yet it never descends into sickly sentimentality. This is due, in no small part, to the characters, many of whom are damaged, suffering, all of whom are far from perfect – we take Noel and Vee to our hearts despite their flaws, maybe even because of them. Donald is one of the more despicable characters in the novel and his comeuppance at the end is fist-punchingly gratifying.
Too often the war years are portrayed as times of pluck and pulling together, but there was also a darker side which is explored here. Evans includes some fascinating period details but they are never intrusive or overdone.
It is at this point in the proceedings that I tend to say However. Yet for me there are no Howevers. The plot rattles along, the characters are a joy and the superb dialogue brings them fully to life. If I were being picky I might say I would have liked a more satisfying conclusion to one of the plot strands, but it would be a minor quibble.
Being part of the Bailey’s shadow panel has been tough at times, and occasionally I wondered why I was putting myself through the ordeal. Crooked Heart reminded me why: to discover wonderful novels which, in all probability, I would not otherwise have read. If, like me, you shy away from books described as moving, heart-warming and delightful, then I urge you to think again; I know I will.