Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
A clever orphan and his scam-artist guardianan odd couple in wartime Londonexplore the space between legally wrong and morally right. Engaging and comic, Evans' U.S. debut takes a different slant on Britain during World War II, focusing less on the heroism, more on the seedy underbelly where frauds and crimes flourished while the nation was preoccupied with beating Hitler. Vera Sedge is one such petty trickster, claiming to be collecting for war charities, then pocketing her gains. But she's not very good at it until an unpredictably gifted evacuee, Noel Bostock, joins the household and reorganizes her methods. Ten-year-old Noel, a loner with a leg damaged by polio, is mourning the death of his eccentric godmother, Mattie, whose quirky perspective shaped his thinking. Unlikely allies, Noel and Vera are the most prominent figures in a crowd of homefront characters that includes Vera's even dodgier son, Donald, some surprising old ladies, and the assorted ranks of those not suitable to join the fighting forces. Aided by spot-on dialogue and low-key charm, Evans does a noticeably good job of spanning a wide range of emotional notes, from genuine sadness to absurd humor: Vera, for example, is injured during a bombing raid not by the bombs themselves but by an ambulance door slamming her in the face. While the privations and terrors of life during a time of rationing and sudden death are poignantly registered, there's also a funny side, even to swindlers. And while everyone is trying to keep calm and carry on, Noel and Vera, assisted by strokes of fortune and a little arm-twisting, eventually succeed in this, too. A dark, cherishable, very English comedy about not-so-funny times and events. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
SHOW OF HANDS: Was anybody here an odd-looking, precocious, misunderstood child? Oh. ... Everybody? Maybe that's why so many of the novels we love most, from Brontë's "Jane Eyre" to Rowling's Harry Potter series, feature some version of this small person. We are gutted not by Scout or Jem in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but by Dill, the fatherless fantabulist; we may admire Sara Crewe when she's a kind little heiress, but she's truly a princess when she loses both her money and her dad. I'll read anything that features an invisible, unloved child, an orphan either in reality or spirit, more resourceful than any wee one should have to be. Bonus points if the child finds ways to skirt the law. (I'm looking at you, Addie Pray.) Now, in "Crooked Heart," Lissa Evans's absorbing and atmospheric comic novel, another quietly heroic orphan joins the canon. It is London, 1939. Noel Bostock - solemn, bookish and gimpy, 9 years old and about to turn 10 - lives with his godmother, Mattie, an eccentric former suffragette who feeds Noel's intellect the way others would feed him porridge. Unfortunately, as she sinks further into dementia, she's forgetting to give him actual sustenance. Noel is left as caretaker and protector of a woman who scoffs at the idea that bombs are about to blanket London and sees no point in evacuating her home near Hampstead Heath. When disaster strikes, Noel is at first shunted to his philistine aunt and uncle. Their contempt for one another is mutual, and with Hitler "thumbing his nose from just across the Channel," Noel is forced to join other displaced children in the far London suburb of St. Albans. His snarky observations on his fellow evacuees ("The only discernible difference between the Ferris twins ... is that one of them is even more cretinous than the other") constantly amuse, even as our hearts break a little at his naked attempts to gain some mastery over his helpless circumstances. After all the desirable, good-looking children have been claimed, Noel is reluctantly taken in by Vee Sedge, whose beneficence is greatly aided by the modest government stipend she'll receive for Noel's care. The 36-year-old widow has been hardened by a life of scrimping: "She had sharp, worried features and she kept moving her head around, keeping a watch on everything, like a magpie hanging around a picnic." She's one of those unlucky women whose schemes for riches, checked by a conscience, end up going nowhere. (When she takes out a life insurance policy on an infirm 87-year-old neighbor, the woman immediately begins to perk up.) Vee is also an ingrate-magnet. Her awful mother occupies her days sitting on her capacious bum, posting her domestic grievances to Winston Churchill even as she does her patriotic best to buck him up. ("Well done about Abyssinia.") Vee's phlegmatic son, Donald, whom she dotes on as only a deluded mother can, doesn't contribute a tuppence to the household. Yet he always has mysterious business elsewhere: It turns out that while his mother struggles to keep the family solvent he's making a nice living by renting out his 4F corpus, complete with heart murmur (one of the "crooked hearts" of the title), to draft dodgers scamming the armed forces doctors, a scheme that works beautifully - until it doesn't. Both of these wastes of space are comfortably united in one idea: They are destined for better things than Vee can provide. It is into this desperate situation that little Noel stumbles, and it is he who realizes that Something Must Be Done. Noel couldn't save his godmother. But perhaps, with lessons learned from Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, he can show Vee how to make crime pay. It turns out that a well-spoken child and an attractive young widow can do quite well collecting for war charities, and Noel, a future marketing guru, tests different neighborhoods and charity names, discovering that pretty much anything with the word "orphan" in it gets results. And so we're shown something that many of us who ride the New York City subway observe daily: The most charitable among us are often those who can afford it least. When Vee accumulates a bit of a nest egg, she's thrilled to make a donation to a legitimate charity herself - a whole half-crown. "Vee glided out of the shop as though on a gilded barge. She couldn't remember when she'd ever felt as good, not ever." This is a wonderfully old-fashioned, Dickensian novel, with satisfying plot twists that invoke the flavor (and scams) of wartime London (whale meat passed off as cod; cheap dyed government petrol, soaked in bread to remove the dye, then sold at jacked-up prices to the masses). It's perhaps no surprise that when one of Noel's marks is being victimized on a far grander scale, the boy becomes the righteous patron of the underdog; or that Donald, the kind of son who belongs in a Roald Dahl novel, will fall for a pretentious pill who gains his love by convincing him that she deserves much better than him. Evans, a British television producer, director and writer who also somehow worked a medical degree and some standup comedy into her résumé, has created a story both darkly funny and deeply touching - and no less joyous for its predictability. We know that these two people, hapless and unappreciated alone and initially so distrusting of each other, are going to connect; the pleasure is in discovering how they do it. When all seems lost, Vee and Noel need to come up with one more scheme that will allow them to stay together. This time it's Vee who concocts it. "Noel felt a stir of excitement. 'You mean it's legally wrong but morally right?' "There was a short pause. "'Yes,' said Vee, with just a touch of uncertainty. 'Want to hear it?'" Indeed we do. And that's the great delight of this novel. It's a series of unfortunate (and fortunate) events, many of them legally wrong, most of them morally right. It's a crooked journey, straight to the heart. JUDITH NEWMAN is the author of "You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother."