10 August 2021

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

It was such a joy to be back in the setting of Green Shutters in Hampstead.  The year is 1944 and the bombs continue to rain down across London.  Noel is as inquisitive as ever at fifteen years of age, and although the dinner table might be skimpy at times, Vee's boarding house residents fill the space with conversation.  Actually, this peripheral cast of characters are among the best, right up there with those from Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me and Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude.  

Dr Parry-Jones always gripped her cutlery very near the ends, manipulating the knife and fork with delicate precision.  She had a similar approach to conversation, impassively pinning down and dissecting casual remarks....

Mr Reddish works for the St Pancras Borough Council, Mr Jepson writes for The North London Press, Miss Zawadska works the evening shift at the BBC canteen, and Miss Appleby was teaching Noel French but spends increasingly more time filling him in on relationship woes.

With dramatic descriptions of bombsites and evenings interrupted by the crumping sound of blasts across the city, the toll of nearly five years of war are evident.  Large holes and piles of rubble throw train and bus schedules out of whack and supply chains are sketchy.   Winnie Crowther is in charge of the team of volunteers at Wardens' Post 9 at Deddington Square Gardens.  Married to an officer in one of those mad rushes created by the war, the couple are getting to know each other through letters intercepted by a third party.  A basket under Winnie's bed is filled with envelopes, accumulating dust from the series of blasts around her flat.  Metaphorically, so are her memories of the man she married. 

The other cross Winnie has to bear is her twin sister Avril.  Winnie's strengths are clear but it feels as though she has forever walked in the shadow of Avril's glamour and forward manner.  Using the barely disguised details of Winnie's work as Post Warden to write a tense and important book called Tin Helmet,  Avril has finally produced the straw that broke the camel's back.  After a major event shines a light on Winnie's skills as a leader, the power dynamic between the sisters is about to change.

When called to testify in court as a witness to a tragic accident, Vee is a ball of nerves.  She has been masquerading as Margery Overs as a way of keeping Noel in her guardianship and under the roof at Green Shutters.  Should Vee clear this hurdle it's only a matter of time before another one appears.  If you've been following this trilogy, beginning with Crooked Heart, there is no question about who you've thrown your support behind so this is 'edge of your seat' tension.

Despite the bombs and trail of destruction, Lissa Evans made me laugh out loud with her extraordinarily clever wit, especially displayed in Vee's dialogue - both internal and external.  When an American soldier befriends Vee, she is anxious to behave in a manner befitting a woman of impeccable standards....

  'Right.  Only it's perishing out, I can't think how I'll ever keep warm.'  Which sounded, she realized instantly, exactly like a phrase from a lurid newspaper article about good-time girls; she might as well have snapped her garter and named her price.  Fortunately, the corporal was lighting a cigarette, and didn't see her wince.

'All right, then,' she said, buttoning up her coat.  'Just a quick one.'  God almighty, and now she sounded like Max Miller.  'I mean, a walk - I mean, a quick walk - that what I meant.'

Fiction aside for a moment, I learned that the first four beats of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony correspond with Morse Code for the letter V....short-short-short-long.  V for Victory.  The music became a symbol of solidarity and resistance.  And more personally, I recently bought an extra kitchen knife to give to a colleague.  Immediately reaching for her wallet, she said she had to give me something for it because of a superstition her father had.  I laughed, accepted the penny offered and didn't think anything more of it.  While reading this book, Vee has to give her friend a halfpenny when gifted with a penknife so their friendship isn't severed.  Needless to say, my friend at work was thrilled to know the reason behind her father's superstition.  Oh, and a mouton coat is a lamb skin treated with chemicals that force the fibres to lay flat so they resemble sable or beaver, and tombola is a game similar to Bingo.

It has been such a pleasure to watch the character development of Noel and Vee; to see the fragments, large and small, of their background come together in such a satisfying way.  And the atmosphere feels impressively authentic down to a first taste of grapefruit when expecting something sweet like an orange.  It had to be more enjoyable than a soy-bean paste sandwich with diced gherkin.  Lastly, I appreciated the strong female presence from a Home Front perspective and Winnie's poignant forecast that women would be sent packing from jobs they enjoyed to keeping house with little respite and no income.

If there is a campaign begging Lissa Evans to continue this series I will happily sign my name to it.  Now I'm off to read The Lumber Room by Saki because it's Noel's favourite and just so happens to be on my shelf.

Poster by Percy Drake Brookshaw (1907 - 1993)

2 comments:

  1. I agree, this is a terrific trilogy. Just wonderful to spend time with these characters. Comfort reading at its best.

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    1. I envy anyone who has all three stories to discover! It will be interesting to see where Evans goes with her next book. In any case, I'll be buying it because she's such a good writer and storyteller.
      Have a nice day, Peggy!

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