I seem to have a thing for historical novels at the moment and I’m lucky to be spoilt for choice. This novel loosely follows on from two other books by Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, both of which are terrific reads. The main character who features in all three is a boy called Noel who only appears briefly in Old Baggage, but is a young evacuee in Crooked Heart when Vee takes him in.
Vee has had a hard upbringing and knows the value of looking after yourself, with an eye over your shoulder in case someone catches you out. She’s a grifter in the earlier book, and now she has as secret as well as a new name, masquerading as Noel’s aunt, a Margery Overs. It’s the only way she can still be Noel’s guardian, and the two are inseparable.
In V for Victory, Noel and Vee are living in Hampstead, in the house where Noel lived with Mattie, an elderly former suffragette and Noel’s godmother (and also the main character in Old Baggage). Mattie has left a lasting impression on Noel, making him an eager student and likely to quote chunks of literature and even Greek at any moment. It might make him sound a trifle old for his fifteen years but his bright, cheery curiosity soon wins people over.
Such as Winnie, the chief fire warden he meets when out trying to buy a textbook from a recently bombed stationery shop. Winnie’s story is a subplot loosely threaded with the main story and gives a glimpse of the experiences of women left behind by husbands in the forces that they hardly remember.
Winnie’s Emlyn has been in a POW camp since Dunkirk. Now we’re approaching the end of the war, she’s wondering what it will be like to see him again, dreading the mail in case there’s another boring letter outlining imaginary colour schemes for an imaginary house, or garden plans. In the meantime she’s become a confident and able young woman who’s found her feet with her war work, emerging from the shadow cast by her glamorous twin sister.
But the main story focuses on what happens when Vee witnesses an accident involving a US Army truck driver and has to report to the coroner’s court. Vee is terrified of having to lie under oath that she’s Margery Overs. But there’s a happy outcome when she becomes the recipient of treats from the US Army stores and invitations to go out with defendant, Corporal O’Mahoney. You can’t help feeling Vee’s secret will be discovered sooner or later, though.
But most of the fun in this book centres around the odd-bod bunch of boarders Vee has taken in to make ends meet. She selects them carefully so that they can double as tutors for Noel, in place of school. Dr Parry-Jones teaches Noel chemistry, biology and ‘accuracy’ (her steady gaze seemed to see and expect only the truth); Mr Reddish, who once dreamt of a stage career teaches literature and is always on the brink of a recitation; Mr Jepson, a journalist who lost an ear in the previous war, takes care of history and mathematics. Dinner time conversations are always a hoot.
Similarly, there’s plenty of lively banter between Winnie and her fellow wardens in their Post 9 Nissan hut. Evans has such a knack with dialogue, it is easy to imagine these characters and what they sound like. And the wartime drudgery: making meals go further out of rations (fortunately Noel is an inventive cook and they have chickens); the lack of heating; the queuing; the interrupted train services; the end of war fatigue. Not to mention the constant listening for V-2 rockets which fall from the sky with little warning.
It all comes together in a book that captures the time with humour and empathy – a delicate balance to get right – and adds up to a perfect wartime novel. There’s plenty of competition in this genre, but V for Victory stands out for its quirky scenarios and unlikely heroes. I hope Evans has a few more up her sleeve. This one gets a four and a half out of five from me.