‘Hobbies are for people who don’t read books,’ said Noel; it was one of Mattie’s sayings.
Crooked Heart begins with a lengthy prologue in which we are introduced to ten-year-old Noel and his godmother, Mattie.
She was losing words. At first it was quite funny. ‘The box of things,’ Mattie would say, waving her mauve-veined hands vaguely around the kitchen.
‘The box of things for making flames. It’s a song, Noel!
‘The box of things for making flames
I can’t recall their bloody names.’
…After a while, it stopped being funny…Some words would resurface after a few days; others would sink for ever. Noel started writing labels: ‘SHAWL’, ‘WIRELESS’, ‘GAS MASK’, ‘CUTLERY DRAWER’.
Mattie’s Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery come to visit and Geoffrey makes sure the house meets the blackout regulations, him being an air-raid warden. When he asks where Noel might be off to as an evacuee, Mattie says she hasn’t registered him for evacuation:
‘And since when have I ever taken any notice of what the government says?’ asked Mattie.
There was no possible reply to this. She had been gaoled five times as a suffragette; she still had the scars of handcuffs on her wrists.
I could easily quote most of Mattie’s lines here. She’s a wonderful creation who challenges authority and clearly adores her godson. But then her health deteriorates and when she walks out of the house in her dressing gown and galoshes, holding a torch, Noel struggles to find her.
The main part of the book takes us forward in time to Noel being evacuated along with his classmates from Rhyll Street Junior School. On the train journey, out of London, he spends his time writing in a notebook.
‘What’s in the notebook?’
‘Nothing,’ said Noel, again. Roy snatched it and squinted at the rows of symbols.
‘It’s gobbledegook,’ he said.
Noel took it back, quietly satisfied. It was a very simple code called ‘Pigpen’ and he had just written Roy Pursey is the most ignorant and unpleasant boy in Rhyll Street Junior School.
When they arrive in St. Albans, Noel’s left waiting for someone to choose to look after him as we’re introduced to Vee Sedge.
Vee lives above a scrap metal yard, which her 19-year-old son, Donald, is supposed to patrol regularly throughout the night. He lives with her above the yard having been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a leaky valve, at his call-up medical. For the last few months, Donald’s been going on regular day trips. Because he sometime slips her some money the following day, Vee suspects he’s going to the races. Vee’s mother also lives in the flat, she spends her time writing letters to relatives and the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and President Roosevelt.
Vee struggles to make ends meet so when she sees there’s only two evacuees left and one of them’s ‘…the limping creature with the ears’, she remembers that you get paid for taking an evacuee – more if they have a medical condition – and soon Noel is living in the flat too – while Donald patrols, Noel sleeps and while Noel’s at school, Donald sleeps.
Vee is mostly irritated by Noel to begin with but after an incident which ends with her smacking him across the face, her guilt leads her to invite him on her afternoon trip the following day and Noel discovers how she’s really making the rent.
Crooked Heart has three key plot elements: What’s going to happen to Noel? What’s Vee up to? And where’s Donald going? There are numerous twist and turns and more characters to meet along the way but the stories of these three characters are the centre of the book.
Evans is a great writer; the novel appears effortless by which I mean that you barely notice the writing even though it’s clear that the characters are drawn through small details, actions and some wonderful dialogue.
‘That man on the motorcycle,’ she said, crossing the ditch, and waiting for him to follow, ‘is a rates collector, which means he goes round frightening people, nagging at them, saying they’ll go to prison and so on, if they don’t pay money that they don’t have, and it’s a scandal, and he gets paid a good wage by the council for doing it, too, and if you ask me, it’s pure wickedness.’
‘My uncle works for the rates,’ said Noel.
‘Does he? Well…’ she groped around for a mollifying statement. ‘There’s good and bad all over,’ she said lamely. ‘I expect your uncle’s kind to you,’
‘No,’ said Noel. ‘I hate him.’
Crooked Heart is about the lengths people will go to survive, particularly in a war. It’s about love and honour, but not in the ways you might expect. And it’s about family and finding yours where you least expect it. It manages to be heart-warming and funny while tackling dark subjects. I loved it.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.