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mde

My introduction to Rose Macaulay was with her 1950 novel The World my Wilderness – which I absolutely loved. I was therefore delighted that Virago has seen fit to re-issue some of her novels – and while I’d always prefer a shabby old green these new editions are lovely to be going on with.

Crewe Train is a much earlier novel and yet there are several similarities to Macaulay’s later novel especially in the character of Denham Dobie. Like Macaulay’s later character Barbary Deniston, Denham has been allowed to run wild, growing up abroad in a less than conventional household. There’s an untutored, childishness about Denham as a young woman – who prefers to be alone out of doors, to not have to talk or socialise or play host in any way to relatives from England.

Denham’s father – a former Church of England vicar, had taken his daughter away, seeking a quieter life abroad, having become sick of having to ‘bury dissenters or to baptise illegitimate infants’ and wanting to be less busy and less sociable. Having found Mallorca to be too sociable they moved to Andorra – where Denham’s father re-marries in a moment of weakness providing Denham with a step-mother and half siblings who he immediately has cause to regret and she doesn’t care for at all. To the horror of Mr Dobie and Denham – visitors from England begin to arrive in Andorra – and with them come relatives of Denham’s mother. When Denham’s father dies – her beautifully groomed, still young Aunt Evelyn and her smart cousins Audrey, Guy, Noel and Humphrey contrive to spirit Denham away – to London, where they can civilise her.

Before I go any further – a word or two about the title – which really puzzled me. A Twitter conversation about it put me out of my misery. The title refers to the lyrics of a once popular music hall song – which describes a mis-directed traveller. This is also explained in the introduction to this edition – but of course I don’t read introductions until I have finished the book.

Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

In London, Denham is introduced to a world she really doesn’t understand. The world of society writers and publishers, where people are always coming together to socialise – to talk! Her Gresham relatives are very well meaning and kind – but they struggle to understand Denham – who immediately dislikes London – and she struggles to understand them. Denham has no idea what to talk about at dinner – each social situation more agonising than the last.

“At dinner that night, when her neighbour said to her, ‘Did you see the Guitrys last week?’ she replied in the manner of Ollendorf, ‘No, but the hair of my dog is coming out. Do you know the best treatment for it?’

The Greshams are conventional, gossipy, self-absorbed and shallow. Denham is something of a rebel – tongue-tied and awkward in company – she soon recognises her relatives and their friends for what they are.

Denham loves the outdoors, prefers the country to London, she likes to be alone, likes fishing and playing games. She dresses just how she likes – she doesn’t understand her aunt’s horror of her apparel – and when Evelyn says she really can’t go out like that – Denham can’t understand it – as she just did. Denham meets Arnold – her uncle’s junior partner in the publishing firm. They fall head over heels – Denham reminds Arthur how much he loves some of those things too. Together they go fishing, play games in front of the fire. However, Arnold also loves society, he likes London and has to be there for work. To the Greshams disapproval Denham and Arnold get married. Denham is horrified by all the domestic conventions she must adhere to.

“But Evelyn gave Denham the true reason why they must not put all the food on the table at once.
‘You mustn’t try to be original yet, Denham dear. You don’t know well enough yet how to keep rules to break them safely. You must wait a bit, and meanwhile do things like other people. You see, when you break social rules, you should always seem to be ahead of fashion and convention not lagging behind them, do you see what I mean?’

On a holiday to Cornwall Denham discovers a cave with a secret passage leading up to a small, disused cottage. This is just the thing to delight the newly-weds – and they set about arranging to rent it for a year. They are like a couple of kids playing house – taking bits and pieces over to the cottage – Denham insisting that Arnold keep the secret passage a dead secret. The novelty of the cave and passageway to the sea soon wears off for Arnold– who finds he doesn’t like sleeping there. So, it isn’t long before cracks are beginning to show – with Denham wanting to stay by the sea in Cornwall with their little dog, and Arnold needing to return to London. Denham stays at the cottage for an extra few weeks – and Arnold returns to London. Here, the Greshams gossip and interfere causing all sorts of mischief at the couple’s expense. Will Denham ever be able to settle down to life with Arnold? – host afternoon tea, manage the servants, know the right conversation?

In this novel Macaulay highlights the absurdity in conventional society – the so called civilised way of life that Evelyn Gresham and her family are so much a part of. Macaulay is frequently very funny in her recreation of this world. In this entertaining comedy of manners Macaulay provides sharply observed social commentary. However, Crewe Train is also the poignant story of a young woman going relentlessly in the wrong direction.

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thetrick to time

Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time has been eagerly anticipated by many of us who fell in love with Leon – the child narrator in her debut novel My name is Leon. I rather lost my heart to Leon – and so this novel had rather a lot to live up to. I enjoyed A Trick to Time every bit as much as I enjoyed that earlier novel – though probably in a different way.

My Name is Leon, is a novel with the city of Birmingham very much at its heart. The Trick to Time is (in part at least) a novel about who some of the people who came to Birmingham from Ireland were. Where they came from, how they lived and the shattering effect upon them of the night of November 21st, 1974. I was just six in November 1974, living in a suburb of Birmingham, my mum was in the city centre that day with some other women from her church. She was in a different part of the city centre up on broad street, so didn’t even know about what had happened till she got home. It was an event that had a massive impact on the city – and I think continues to. The Birmingham pub bombings are a back drop to the novel – and highlights the volatile nature of the relationships between Irish and non-Irish in the city during those years.

However, it is also about much more than that, there is a deceptive lightness of touch here, but Kit de Waal executes this multi-layered novel exquisitely. The Trick to Time is a novel about love, loss and grief – what do you do when you lose the love of your life? Using three, time periods and three different settings, kit de Waal weaves together the heart-breaking stories of people who carry a grief inside them every day.

“One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer.”

Mona grew up in a small town on the coast of Ireland. Her mother died when she was a child, for years Mona is her father’s constant companion. She is a witness to his grief, feeling the absence of her mother throughout her childhood. She and her father spend many Sundays with Bridie – a distant relative of Mona’s mother – who Mona is horribly bored by – not appreciating how for Bridie she and her father are all she has left.

As a young woman, Mona travels to Birmingham, gets a room in a boarding house, a job – the independence and excitement she had once dreamed of in Ireland. Here she meets William, also originally from Ireland, he’s charming with an easy smile and the two are soon smitten. Mona meets Williams’s aunts nicknamed Pestilence and Famine, they become family.

“In the evenings they go to the Bear in Sparkhill. It’s an Irish pub and a man’s pub full of labourers who want a break from their rented rooms and their own company, and middle-aged husbands let off the leash after mass. Nicholas Doyle is always in the corner with his accordion or violin and a couple of drinks lined up on the table to his right. That’s where William likes to sit, right near the music, near the musician’s elbow jerking his bow through the air or folding and unfolding the accordion that sits in his lap like a baby. Talking is almost impossible.”

Mona and William marry, but these are difficult days, and sometimes William has to work away. The world conspires to separate them at the end of 1974 – and Mona has to find a way of carrying on.

Now Mona lives in an English seaside town, she is contemplating her sixtieth birthday in a few days’ time, and works quietly in her shop, making dolls for collectors, creating gorgeously detailed outfits for them. With the help of a local carpenter Mona makes other dolls – special dolls that she uses to help women grappling with the over whelming grief of a stillbirth.

“‘It was only the kindness of a stranger that gave me the time to say goodbye. And that kindness gave me forty-five minutes with my child and I turned that forty-five minutes into a lifetime, into all the days and hours and weeks and years that we would never have together.”

The Trick to Time is a wonderfully compelling novel – I loved Mona – her story is one I’ll not forget easily. Many people I suspect will be profoundly moved and affected by the themes in this novel which are explored with sensitivity and understanding. It is a novel with a wonderful final line – I do love a novel with a heart stopping final line.

kit-de-waal

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Tales from the tbr

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More books have come into the house – and I am hovering over the buy button almost daily. This is not good.

In January I was able to report that my tbr stood at 280 – once I had added in all those invisible kindle books. I imposed a book buying ban for the whole of January – (there may need to another one of those soon) but since then I have returned to my good old, bad old ways. So now, despite my best efforts I still have 264 books tbr – there was one heady moment when I fell below 260 – but of course I acquired more books. There they are, in all their glory. So, while the overall number has fallen – it hasn’t fallen by much. I’m also aware that, I don’t have any books for phase 3 of #ReadingMuriel2018 so once I have read a few more books to make space, but before the start of May I shall have to rectify that situation (perhaps I should reacquaint myself with the library for those).

Having so loved Barbara Comyns’ The Juniper Tree – I went straight off and ordered three more of her books; Mr Fox, Sisters by a River, and The House of Dolls. I am going to space them out over the next few months (or longer) so I have them to look forward to.

Trick by Domenico Startone published by Europe Editions – is the latest book to arrive from The Asymptote book club – it is translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. I anticipate it eagerly – a quick flick through when it arrived really whetted my appetite.

A Secret Sisterhood (the hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney looks utterly brilliant and boasts a foreword by Margaret Atwood. Well I had to really.

Having seen so many fabulous reviews lately of Fleur Jaeggy novels I bought Sweet Days of Discipline, which I am really looking forward to.

Following on from my review of Crooked Heart a novel set during World War Two by Lissa Evans I was delighted to be offered a review copy of Old Baggage – which comes out in June. It will reunite me with a most fascinating character from Crooked Heart.

The Divine Fire by May Sinclair is definitely the oldest book I have bought in the last couple of weeks. I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Budleigh Salterton while I was away a few days ago. A 1911 edition of a novel first published in 1904, I didn’t have to pay much for it – as it is probably not in the greatest condition, good enough to read I hope.

I’m fairly pleased with my progress in A Century of Books so far, however, I know I have books coming up (book group reads, Muriel Spark reading etc that will mean I replicate some years I have already done – so slowing down my progress. Also, despite my buying all those books I still have gaps in my ACOB spreadsheet. My gap years are: 1938, 1978. 1979,1991, 1992. 1994, 1999 and 2004. Some years (for example 1950, 1974 – I only have one book listed- and so no choice of title – I much prefer to have three or four to choose from). I am very much enjoying A Century of Books though – I would love to finish it in one year, though not sure how realistic that is. To date I have ticked off thirty years (though not yet reviewed them all).

I’m just about to start reading The Bachelors by Muriel Spark, which I have been looking forward to so much. I really should be reading my book group read – Men without Women by Haruki Murakami – which I admit I may be putting off a bit. We meet on Wednesday evening – what chances are there I shall have finished Spark and read Murakami by then?

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Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

At the end of last year, when I was thinking about reading challenges for 2018, I decided to attempt to read more fiction in translation. I suppose I read a few of these books each year – but I have ever deliberately set out to do so. I signed up for the Asymptote book club, subscribers receive one work in translation a month and access to a Facebook discussion group. Initially I signed up for three months, but when that came to an end I took the plunge and subscribed again for a full year. This has all quite obviously whetted my appetite, as I recently found myself asking for recommendations of mid-twentieth century women writers (my comfort zone) in translation. One of the first names suggested was Clarice Lispector, a name I had vaguely heard before but knew nothing about. So, I bought Near to the Wild Heart just a couple of weeks ago, intending to save it for Women in Translation month, only to find myself reading it a few days later.

Clarice Lispector was born in Ukraine but moved to Brazil with her parents as a young child. Near to the Wild Heart was her first novel, published in 1943 around the time of her twenty-third birthday. It was greeted with great acclaim, and won the author the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. Lispector writes in a stream of consciousness style which is reminiscent of modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The epigraph for the novel comes from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

A slim novel, it is nevertheless challenging, beautifully written – the perspective changes throughout, and is impressionistic, dreamlike and introspective. I was reminded particularly of Virginia Woolf – it being a very long time since I attempted James Joyce (one novel was enough). The central character; Joana continually asking herself philosophical questions – questioning her relationship with everything including objects around her. Much, I think is therefore required of the reader, and I’m certain some of it went over my head. Apologies if I have made this sound difficult and dull, although maybe not easy – Lispector’s prose is glorious, and even those more difficult sections are a joy to read.

“When I suddenly see myself in the depths of the mirror, I take fright. I can scarcely believe that I have limits, that I am outlined and defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself. When I suddenly see myself in the mirror, I am not startled because I find myself ugly or beautiful. I discover, in fact, that I possess another quality. When I haven’t looked at myself for some time, I almost forget that I am human, I tend to forget my past, and I find myself with the same deliverance from purpose and conscience as something that is barely alive. I am also surprised to find as I gaze into the pale mirror with open eyes that there is so much in me beyond what is known, so much that remains ever silent.”

There is not an enormous amount of plot, which is not something that ever really bothers me. The novel tells the story of Joana, from her childhood, alone with her father, writing him poetry, through the changes that come to her childhood and adolescence, to her marriage to Otávio, through to her decision to make her own way in the world. Even as a child Joana is free thinking and unusual. Lispector’s descriptions of Joana’s thought processes and interactions with the world around her are quite wonderful.

“She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound.”

There is an untamed, creativity to Joana, her father calls her his little egg. The novel moves back and forth from the present time, when Joana is a young, married woman, to her past, her childhood and later the years she spends living with her aunt.

“The aunt’s house was a refuge where the wind and the light didn’t enter. The maid sat down with a sigh in the dismal entrance hall, where, among the heavy, dark furniture, the smiles of framed men glowed slightly. Joana remained standing, barely breathing in the lukewarm smell that came sweet and still after the pungent ocean air. Mould and tea with sugar.”

When Joana’s father dies, Joana is sent to another part of the country to an Aunt. Who lives near the beach. Her life changes, her wildness leading her Aunt to call her a viper. The aunt remains rather afraid of Joana. As an adolescent Joana becomes fascinated with her teacher, regarding his wife jealously, arranging a meeting with him a few years later, just before her marriage. Joana marries Otávio, who had previously been engaged to Lídia, although he doesn’t seem very committed to marriage with Joana. Even when Otávio continues his relationship with Lídia, and makes her pregnant, Joana seems more taken up with her interior life, than what is happening in her marriage. Her musings on life, death and discovering who it is she really is are very much at the heart of this extraordinary novel.

As a character Joana is quite difficult to get a firm handle on, despite the fact the novel is very largely taken up with her progress through life, she remains quite elusive. Joana is quite disconnected from the world she inhabits, and from the people around her – her emotions are very cool often she views her own emotions as if from the outside.

I both enjoyed and was confounded by this novel – overall this was a quite wonderful reading experience. Near to the Wild Heart is a novel I should probably get more out of with a second reading. I can’t help but wonder about the young woman who wrote it, what a mind she must have had. I’m sure I will read more by her in time. Clarice Lispector has been a good discovery for me – a challenging literary novelist in translation. I wonder which I should read next?

clarice lispector

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midsummernight workshouse

I have become an admirer of Diana Athill through reading four of her books of memoir – and I have a couple more tbr. She is a wonderful teller of tales, her memoirs written with great warmth and honesty. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was my first experience of Athill’s fiction.

These twelve stories first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s, ten of them published with four others under the title An Unavoidable Delay in 1962. This lovely Persephone collection was published in 2011 – with Athill able to write her own preface – she is one of only a few living authors to be published by Persephone. The endpapers taken from a fabric purchased by Diana Athill for her flat in the 1970s.

In this collection Athill writes about young women experiencing the world of love and sex for the first time. Smart, sexy, knowing stories, touched with gentle humour and some well-developed characterisation.

A young girl is enraptured by her first kiss at a dance, with an unexciting young man in The Real Thing which opens the collection. The girl is touchingly young, finds so many situations to be ‘utterly withering’ and unkindly calls her companion Thomas ‘Toofat’ in her head – his last name is Toogood. He is at least old enough to drive a car. In No Laughing Matter another young girl – a university student – who is absolutely smitten with her boyfriend Stephen – has to decide whether it is time to take their relationship to the next level.

“For twelve weeks these anxieties had buzzed like mosquitoes, teasing at the decision, giving her the circles under her eyes and spoiling her appetite. The more formidable they became, the more certain she was that she would do it in spite of them. The decision was harder than she had expected, involved more than the general principle of the thing which, though frightening, was simple. She was suffering for it, and the more she suffered the greater became her exaltation.”
(No Laughing Matter)

Most of these quiet stories are set in England, and the point of view is mainly, though not exclusively that of women. Two stories take place abroad, one in Italy and one in Greece. Although the themes of many of these stories are very similar – they each standalone perfectly – characters are clearly distinct from one another.

midsummernight2Adultery rears its head in a couple of stories – in the first of them, we meet one woman living in boredom with her husband. Her memory, keeping alive, her brief fling with a slight social acquaintance. In, For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound Kate Beeston is floored by a casual phone call from her former lover she watches her husband in the garden – and recalls the week she spent with David Field when her husband was away. This was one of my favourite stories, for me it had the feel of the kind of story Elizabeth Taylor could have written.

“The name had stabbed her – ‘It’s David Field here’ – so that Kate had reached for something to lean on, but then an odd contentment had come down on her and it had been an effort to understand what he was saying. She had wanted only to listen to the sound of his voice.”
( For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound)

In the title story, a writer tries desperately to find her writing mojo – at a writing retreat. There are a host of quirky characters installed – including a practised seducer – who all delight in poking fun at the house rules, and the odd little messages pinned up on the communal notice board.

One story told from a male point of view is An Afternoon Off. Tweedy middle-aged Roger Paul, who works for a publisher has rarely had a day off, never taken his full holiday entitlement. One afternoon he decides to not go back to the office – he doesn’t phone them to explain either. He goes to the cinema and has tea with a young woman who he tries not to notice is a bit common and tells him about her boyfriend. He finds it is all a little bit disappointing.

In the final story Buried – a middle aged woman finds herself skulking through the farmyard of her brother’s neighbour. It is a couple of years since Mrs Klein last visited her Colonel brother. Their peculiar adventure gives her chance to recall their childhood, how her elder brother had been everything to her before he went away to school – and gradually life disrupted that early closeness. In this way, she comes to a new understanding of her brother, realising how he became the man he is.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is another excellent short story collection from Persephone books. Diana Athill a writer I continue to read with great relish.

DianaAthill

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cof

It’s the first of April and Easter Sunday – a very Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it – but oh my it hasn’t felt very spring like at all. Still, a long Easter weekend is the perfect excuse to curl up with a good book, and I’m sure many of you will be doing just that.

March has given me some fabulous reading – quite a variety – some Virago Modern Classics, not one but two works of translation, short stories and a couple of modern novels. I went rogue a week or two ago – reviewing books out of the order in which I read them, so that my E H Young review would come out on E H Young day. I have made good progress on my ACOB – I accidentally read two books from 2011 in March – but as I’m doing quite well I don’t think it will slow me down too much. (I can’t believe how obsessed I have become with year published dates).

I began March with The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark definitely my favourite of the four I have read so far this year, on a par I think with A Far Cry from Kensington which I enjoyed so much last year. It is 1945 where all the nice people are poor, and the girls of slender means reside at The May of Teck club where they share a Schiaparelli dress. It’s a fantastic novel.

March was also Read Ireland month – I read two novels for the event – and the first of them Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane. In this novel Molly Keane portrays an early twentieth century Irish childhood – compulsively evocative. It is almost certainly my favourite Molly Keane novel to date.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright was my second read for Read Ireland month. It is extremely well written, and yet something left me completely cold, and ultimately disappointed.

The Juniper Tree by Comyns was so, so good, it saw me ordering a couple more Comyns novels on the strength of it. It is one of her later novels, with a deceptively dark heart – as Comyns, having lulled us into a false sense of security, pulls the rug out from under us.

My latest book from the Asymptote book club was Love by Hanne Ørstavik, a heart-breaking story of a mother and son in Norway. Brutal and bleak it is another unforgettable little book.

Celia by E H Young – reviewed out of order for E H Young day – is novel which has marriage at its heart. In this 1937 novel E H Young examines the marriages of three related couples. It was my fattest book of a month – which generally saw me reading quite slight novels (I didn’t choose them for that reason honest). Young’s characterisation is always superb, and I very much enjoyed the eponymous character – who hides her sharp intelligence behind a domestic vagueness.

I love a novel set in World War two – and admittedly I would usually prefer them written during World War Two too, however Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (which I had had on my kindle for well over a year) ticked off 2014 in my ACOB. It was an excellent read, and I am very much looking forward to reading more by Lissa Evans.

Persephone do publish some fabulous short story collections – Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill is yet another. I am already a fan of her writing through her memoirs, and these stories were every bit as good. I shall be reviewing them in a day or two.

Some of you may remember me pledging to read more books in translation during 2018 – in a bid to widen my horizons. That is what led me to sign up for The Asymptote book club subscription. I recently had a twitter conversation with a couple of people about women in translation. I asked for recommendations for mid-twentieth century women writers in translation – and got a long list to explore. One name which I was recommended first was Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian writer I have seen likened to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and others, certainly Near to the Wild Heart did put me in mind of Virginia Woolf at times. It was a dense little read, quite challenging yet still very enjoyable. I needed something very different afterwards.

I had Pre-ordered The Trick to Time weeks ago – and it arrived on the day I finished Clarice Lispector. I loved My Name is Leon, and with Kit de Waal being a Birmingham writer – who writes about Birmingham I had to read it straight away. I’m not going to say too much about it now – but yes, it is certainly another good novel. Review to come.

April is upon us, and #ReadingMuriel2018 will see me reading The Bachelors and I hope to read The Ballad of Peckham Rye as well. I am still enjoying my Muriel Spark reading very much. The week after next my very small book group will be reading Men without Women by Haruki Murakami – a book of short stories, I have bought it for my kindle despite slight reservations. I’ll be honest – I have never considered Murakami to be my kind of writer – but we will see. The 1977 club starts on April 16th – and I have several books to choose from including Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood (short stories) and The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning (book one in the Levant trilogy) I also have Agatha Christie’s autobiography and somewhere buried in the tbr is a book called A marriage of True Minds about Virginia and Leonard Woolf which I had originally meant to read for #Woolfalong two years ago!

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As ever, please tell what you are reading, and what books you loved most during March.
Happy reading.

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crooked heart

I’ve had this book lying idle on my kindle for ages, and I do love a World War Two novel, so I picked it to fill my 2014 slot of ACOB.

This was my first novel by Lissa Evans – but it certainly won’t be my last. I recently saw the film Their Finest – (which I loved) but only learned later that it was adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans, who I have followed on social media for a couple of years.

The characterisation in Crooked Heart, is just superb – and it occurred to me while reading how visual this novel is (if that makes sense). The author quite obviously binging her experience of working in film and television to her writing.

Noel Bostock is an extraordinary young boy, just ten years old, intelligent and resourceful. He has a slight disability picked up from polio, which leads some people to under estimate him. A voracious reader of detective novels – in time we see he has been picking up tips. An orphan, as the second world war breaks out, he is living with his godmother Mattie.

Mattie is a fabulous character, a former suffragette – her medals are prized possessions and she is full of stories. Mattie’s way of raising a child is perhaps unconventional. She speaks to Noel like an adult, bringing him up to have an understanding of the world around him and to disapprove of the war. Mattie is reluctant to obey the blackout rules and other government directives, and when the forms arrive to apply for ration books, it is Noel who fills them in. His upbringing means that Noel is more comfortable around adults – though he detests Mattie’s relatives who come to call from time to time. He is not used to other children.

“The day after that, all the children disappeared, as if London had shrugged and the small people had fallen off the edge. Noel, running an errand, was stared at in the street. The baker asked why he hadn’t gone with the others. ‘I think you’ll find that evacuation is not compulsory,’ replied Noel, loftily. It was what Mattie had said to an interfering neighbour”

Mattie refuses to send Noel away with the other evacuated children – and that is absolutely fine by Noel who is much happier with Mattie – knowing deep down that she needs him, as she has started to forget a lot of her words. The inevitable happens of course – and Noel’s life is turned upside down. This section of the novel is beautifully and poignantly told, the relationship between Noel and Mattie is exquisitely rendered – and I desperately wanted Mattie’s story to continue. (More of that later).

It is a grieving child that is finally evacuated to St Albans. Noel has lost all interest in life – he hasn’t even been reading and accepts what happens to him quite passively. Noel is installed into the home of Vera Sedge, thirty-six with an adult son, and a mother who doesn’t speak. Vera is in debt, desperate to find ways of making money – and she doesn’t mind if it isn’t strictly legal. She only really takes Noel on because she will be paid. While Vee’s mother sits writing long letters to Winston Churchill, ticking him off for any mistakes she thinks he has made and giving him helpful advice, Vee’s son Donald has been judged unfit to serve in the army because of a heart murmur – and sees a way to exploit it.

The war has given rise to all sorts of new money-making scams – and Vee is just desperate enough to give it a try. What she lacks is a cool head, the ability to plan and the confidence to carry it out without rushing in head first and messing it up. This is where Noel comes in, not especially happy at the local primary school, Noel is keen to have something more interesting to distract him. Vee is chaotic, a bit of a disaster on her own, but with Noel in tow, Vee achieves her objective. Travelling by train from St Albans the pair criss-cross bomb damaged London suburbs with fake collection boxes and they start to make a profit. They become a pretty good team, and Noel begins to take an interest in life again.

“Vee stood and looked at him, this large man in her kitchen who had never learned – never been taught – the meaning of obligation, and with a slow surge of despair that was almost like nausea she realized that the calamities of the day, every last one of them, had simply been lying in wait for her; not the actions of cruel fate but a series of tripwires lovingly laid by herself. She’d asked for nothing from her mother and her son and she’d expected nothing from them, either, and now she’d received nothing, not even thanks. She was face down in the mud, and on her own.”

Vee is worn down with worrying about money, she has people depending on her, afraid of being homeless, she owes so much rent. She is out of her depth, but she isn’t a bad person, and finds herself caring for Noel more than she had expected. While Vee and Noel need to make a little money fast – they are soon reminded that there are others out there also wanting to make money from the war, and some of them are dangerous. Vee realises she must act fast to stop Noel getting into trouble.

This is such a heart-warming novel – which touches on aspects of wartime Britain I hadn’t much thought about.

Excitingly, Lissa Evans’ next novel will be published in June, and it will tell the story of Mattie – and I, for one can’t wait.

lissa evans

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