This wasn’t what I expected at all although I knew it was set in WWII I didn’t expect the direction it took, and I dare anyone to read this and not fall in love the boy at the centre of the story, Noel.
Noel is ten years old, lives with his godmother, Mattie in Hampstead. Mattie was a suffragette, a woman who enjoys giving Noel some of her hard-won lessons in sound-bites but she is also a woman, who is slowly becoming more and more forgetful. When his school is first evacuated Noel stays behind, spending his days with Mattie and at the library instead.
“The day after that, all the children disappeared, as if London had shrugged and the small people had fallen off the edge.”
Noel is incredibly bright, he loves the crime fiction, gobbling up stories about Sherlock Holmes and his ilk. The other children returned to London as nothing much had happened and then Mattie disappears and Noel ends up living with a stuffy couple nearby until the authorities act once again and another evacuation takes place, gas masks and sandwiches are packed along with clothing and the children board the train. This time Noel joins them, he may be clever but he suffers with a limp when he is tired, has sticky out ears and looks a bit simple – he is the penultimate child to find a home when he arrives with his classmates in St Albans. The billeting officer persuades Vee takes him into a home which she shares with her elderly mother, Flora and her son, Donald. Flora is another eccentric woman whilst Donald is what my mother would call ‘a lazy lump!’ This unusual household have moved around seemingly lurching from one financial crisis to the next while Flora writes impassioned letters about all and sundry to all and sundry, including the Prime Minister – the book is worth reading for these alone!
“There was something peculiarly memorable about Vee; she seemed to move like the actors in silent films, all jerks and freezes.”
What happens next is a money-making scheme which I can’t condone but at the same time secretly admire. The scheme is the beginning of a bond between Vee and Noel which is entirely heart-warming. In between this affection, what is depicted as happening in St Albans and the surrounding boroughs is probably fairly close to what often happened in war-time but is not so widely accepted as it flies in the face of a nation fighting as one. With evocative tales of nights spent sheltering from bombs in the underground stations and the following morning viewing the devastation that those bombs had wrought this is a tale that really defies any genre.
A good read is one that holds a good sense of place and time, and this book does exactly that. With characters that are exceptionally well-drawn although the secondary characters are more lightly drawn, this is a book that illustrates how much we all need somebody even lazy Donald! Without a doubt it is the humour that stops the tale from becoming utterly mawkish.
I’d like to thank the publishers Random House, for allowing me to read a copy of this fantastic and surprisingly affecting book, which was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2015. Crooked Heart is to be published in paperback on 31 December 2015.