If someone were to recommend a funny novel about the London Blitz, you might think either that the person was joking or that such a book could only be tasteless and disrespectful. In some cases you’d be right, but in the case of Crooked Heart, British author Lissa Evans’ American debut, you’d be in for a pleasant surprise. Evans has written an amusing tale about morally compromised characters that, in the midst of its comedy, asks whether morally wrong actions are justified in a time of unspeakable horror.
In the novel’s prologue, children are being evacuated from London, including from 10-year-old Noel Bostock’s area of Hampstead. Noel lives with his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette who has been jailed five times and who resists the advice to send Noel away because, as she puts it, since when has she ever listened to the government? But when Mattie dies in the bombing, Noel is sent to live in the suburbs with Vera “Vee” Sedge, a 36-year-old widow. Cash-strapped Vee isn’t a woman with a heart of gold. She’s a con artist who spots a moneymaking opportunity when Noel, “the limping creature” with a polio-damaged leg, moves in: She borrows a collection box from a Sunday School, covers up the writing on the side, takes Noel door to door and pretends to raise funds for such charities as the Spitfire Fund and Dunkirk Widows and Orphans.
That Noel accompanies her in this scheme is one of many unexpected twists in Crooked Heart. He and Vee aren’t the only confidence tricksters in the book. Another is Donald, Vee’s son, whose heart murmur has not only rendered him unfit for service but also provided yet another way to make money.
It doesn’t spoil the story to reveal that everyone’s plans go awry. The unforeseen consequences give the book its narrative momentum. The tension flags at times, especially in sections focusing on Donald, but Crooked Heart is still an entertaining and poignant English comedy of bad manners.