Lissa Evans’s dark comedy Crooked Heart (2015 HarperCollins) made me think of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, a 2000 novel that doesn’t get nearly the hype it should. While Evans’s novel is considerably shorter, there are striking similarities in the dark humor and in their young protagonists.
Ten-year old Noel Bostock is being raised by his godmother, Mattie, as WWII starts creeping closer to London. As the threat increases, Mattie falls deeper into dementia. When she dies, Noel is evacuated from London due to the war. Vera, a 36-year-old widow who really can’t afford another mouth to feed, notices his limp and sees the possibility. Plus, she gets money for caring for him.
Vera is the queen of swindles, and Noel becomes her most lucrative one. Noel is not like other children his age. He’s well-educated, confident and self-sufficient. When he realizes that Vera is using him to get donations, he improves upon her scheme. He maps out locations, helps her identify what organizations they will be collecting for, and plays lame and slow as needed. Together, they make a team.
While out one day, they meet a mentally frail older woman. She reminds Noel of his beloved Mattie, and grief seizes his heart. He seeks this woman out for the comforting memories her dementia settles upon him. When she is robbed following a bombing, Noel seeks vengeance.
Vera isn’t the only schemer in the bunch – her adult son with his bad heart is running his own wartime scam; Donald charges to take the heath tests for those called to fight. Vera’s man-child of a son isn’t a likeable character, and his actions put the family in more danger than Vera’s scam and Noel’s attempts at justice.
This war novel had me laughing aloud as Vera and Noel navigate German bombardments, dishonest officers, and their own crooked hearts.