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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Land Fit For Misfits

Crooked Heart: A Novel - Lissa Evans

Set during the Second World War, Crooked Heart is the story of two complete misfits: ten year old Noel, a precociously intelligent but socially inept orphan who lives in Hampstead with his ex-suffragette godmother; and thirty-six year old Vera, an uneducated widow living in St Albans whose life has been a shabby catalogue of failures and whose energies are devoted to a series of semi-criminal money-making schemes


The two are thrown together when Noel's godmother loses first her sanity and then her life, and he is evacuated. Vera volunteers to take him in solely for the allowance that comes with him, in the mistaken belief that he will be easy to manipulate.


Despite his age, Noel turns out to be a great deal better at scheming than Vera and soon the pair of them are working as a team, posing as charity collectors and pocketing the takings. Then, just when things seem to be going well for them, Vera's feckless son, Donald, throws a spanner in the works: all their ill-gotten wealth is lost and they are suddenly homeless.


Lissa Evans is a wonderfully witty author, her writing sprinkled with nicely-turned phrases. Anxious Vera is compared to a 'magpie hanging around a picnic'. Always intimidated by authority, she worries that Noel's teacher will 'pick the truth out of her like a splinter'.


This is not the picture of wartime Britain with which we are normally presented. It is much less monolithic and altogether more quirky. And these are not the wartime heroes one has come to expect. They are too flawed, too anti-social. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel I found it difficult to empathize with them; but by the end as they discovered in each other a refuge from the world and a kind of redemption, I was cheering them on.