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In March I read Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans – having had it languishing in my kindle for a shamefully long time. It ticked off 2014 in my A Century of Books and introduced me to three unforgettable characters, in Mattie, Noel and Vee. So, when I heard that Lissa Evans new novel; Old Baggage was to be a prequel – telling Mattie’s story, I was wildly enthusiastic. I was very grateful therefore to be offered a review copy – and it is only the happy tyranny of ACOB that has prevented me reading it earlier. Old Baggage was a delight everything I had hoped and more, fully involving and brilliantly told.

“What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world.”

1928; Mattie Simpkin is a remarkable woman, with an exciting, heroic past. As part of the Suffrage movement she was imprisoned several times, heckled Churchill, marched and sang alongside her fellow suffragettes, making memorable and lasting friendships. Now, her present is mundane and ordinary – with the Equal Franchise Act making its way through parliament – the old fight is done – so what next? Mattie is a woman who has never walked away from a fight, she is strong willed, determined with a fierce intelligence that she is ready to share.
As the novel opens an altercation at the local fairground beings Ida into Mattie’s life – a working class girl with a raw intelligence– though no one to help direct her potential. Ida comes to work at Mattie’s house, and both Ida and Mattie are changed because of it.

old baggageMattie shares her home with a friend from the old days – Florrie Lee – nicknamed the Flea, who had had an important role using her organisational skills behind the scenes – while women like Mattie were being knocked down by policemen.

Nearing fifty, and working as a qualified sanitary inspector, the Flea has never been able to vote – as she is not a property owner. Florrie had grown up in a poor working-class family, very different to the wealthy family that Mattie grew up in. Mattie’s house is known as the mousehole – reflecting its use as a refuge for women released from prison under the cat and mouse act, when hunger striking prisoners were temporarily released, to regain their strength before being returned to jail. Many women unsurprisingly, once released, went on the run with the help of their friends.

Now Mattie gives talks, with the Flea competently managing the photograph slide machine, she lectures her audience about the days of the suffragette marches, the rigours of imprisonment and how important it all was. Ironically, it is now Mattie who is sometimes heckled. At the end of one of these events Mattie runs into a woman from the old days, Jacko, who now married has recently returned from a few years in Australia. Mattie is depressed and disgusted to find Jacko is heavily involved with a fascist group, which appears to be turning the heads of many impressionistic young people.

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is inspired to create her own club – for girls – no matter what their background, she wants to help the new generation of young women to find their voice, develop their political opinion as well as exercising their bodies. Ida is the first rather reluctant recruit. She is already beginning to speak a little differently after spending time with Mattie and the Flea. The club grows rapidly, and this group of very different girls begin to gel.

“Miss Simpkin by contrast, had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.”

Mattie’s motives are good and idealistic, but a connection from the past, threatens to derail Mattie’s club, bringing disharmony and upset to the group.

Florrie is the calmer more measured personality, Mattie can be headstrong and often reacts without thinking, making decisions she comes to regret. So much of Mattie’s heart and head are in the past, she has been shaped by those experiences. Mattie’s sharp tongue even causes a rift with her old friend too, for a time.

Mattie. Ida and the Flea are superbly well drawn characters it was a pleasure spending time with, by the end of the novel readers of Crooked Heart are seeing some lovely little connections – which I won’t spoil – making this a must for fans of that earlier novel.

With thanks to Lissa Evans and Alison Barrow for the ARC.

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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.

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