The marvellous, clever, hysterically funny, utterly delightful Lissa Evans had guests eating out of the the palm of her hand at last Tuesday night’s Books That Built Me.
After leaving medicine for a stint in stand-up, Lissa made her name in radio and television comedy, winning a BAFTA for Father Ted, creating the format for Room 101 and producing/directing hit shows – The Kumars and Have I Got News for You, amongst others. Like so many brilliant women writers, she came to writing novels after having done all sorts of other things first, which I always find tremendously heartening: I have a theory that women do their best work later in life, which quite contradicts Kazuo Ishiguro’s conviction – or is it Martin Amis’ – that ‘most literary masterpieces are written people under forty’) . Her first novel, Spencer’s List, was published in 2002 and she has since published three other novels for adults and two for children.
The latest, Crooked Heart is set in and around London during the Blitz and tells the ‘odd-couple’ story of the unlikely relationship between ten year old evacuee Noel -a precocious ‘walking-dictionary’, orphaned, raised in wealthy Hampstead by his ex-suffragette godmother Mattie – and the impoverished hustler, Vera Sedge, who takes him into her shabby St Alban’s home more as one of her rather unscrupulous money-making schemes than from a sense of civic duty.
As one might expect from an author with a background in film and television, Evans’ deft, precise prose, engaging plotting and vivid evocation of life on the home-front firmly grounds Crooked Heart in its time whilst allowing the friendship between two lost and lonely souls to develop with great warmth, humour and poignancy. It’s their need for each other that gives the novel its glorious heart.
The Books That Built Lissa Evans
1. My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
‘I can pinpoint the exact day I read it,’ said Lissa, of her first book. ‘It became my world…you can quiz me about any page.’
One of the things I particularly love about Crooked Heart is how perfectly it nails the character of Noel, a bookish, precocious child of ten whose life changes utterly, almost overnight. My Family and Other Animals is Durrell’s marvellous autobiographical story of how, when he was ten, his family left dreary Bournemouth for Corfu, as if on a whim. At about the same age, Lissa’s family moved house and she had to start again in a new school in a new part of the country, so she intimately understands the nimble strategies a child employs to survive in a new environment. Yet it’s not only this that connects Lissa so strongly to My Family and Other Animals, or the wet camping holiday in Wales during which she first discovered it, it’s that Durrell’s novel taught her ‘the precision of being funny‘
2. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Lissa’s parents were great readers, with bookcases full of Penguin Originals – crime novels in green covers, and Penguin’s eclectic mix of fiction in its distinctive orange livery. It’s in her parent’s shelves she found Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London when she was about twelve, and loved it so much she gave it to her best friend fr her birthday, sneaked in alongside the Trojan Horse of a copy of Eric Segal’s Love Story.
Orwell’s first book is an account of his time on the breadline, first in Paris where he works as a plongeur in the horribly filthy kitchen of a very posh hotel, and then in London, when, left destitute when a job falls through, and discovers what it is to be a tramp, living entirely without income in the London of the late 1920’s. As Lissa says, Orwell ‘said good prose should be like a window-pane: that sort of vivid clarity is what I’m always aiming for‘, and more than that, his descriptions of the exhausting, boring, chaotic struggle just to survive that the very poor have, gave birth to Crooked Heart’s other protagonist, Vee.
3. The Egg and I, Betty McDonald
Betty McDonald’s mother impresses on her from an early age that one must always allow one’s husband to follow his career passions, which in McDonald’s case leads her to an isolated, broken down chicken farm in the Olympic Mountains in Western Washington where the nearest neighbours -can only be described as a very mixed blessing- arefour miles away. Like a less refined ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, The Egg and I chronicles its heroine’s struggles with the relentlessness of farm life with a wry, precise humour. If, as Lissa says, it’s occasionally like ‘being buttonholed by a raconteur’, it’s an immensely funny book full of extraordinary characters-‘I owe her a great deal: I wish I’d met her’
4. The Leopard, Lampedusa
The Leopard is ‘a truly immersive book about someone you don’t imagine having anything in common with….it’s a little like Buddenbrooks [and] intensely beautiful. ‘
Set in Sicily, mostly in the summer of 1860, against a backdrop of Garibaldi’s invasion, The Leopard is the story of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats. It first appeared in 1958, but its perfect evocation of a lost world suggests a 19th, rather than 20th, century novel. Lampedusa is an exquisitely precise writer – when she’s writing, Lissa prefers to hone and pare each sentence til it passes muster, and build sentence on sentence, rather than press on with a first draft and then go back and draft again. ‘I hate being given notes’ she says.
Lissa first came across Oliver Sacks as a medical student and read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat to the night porter and sister during one long casualty night shift. ‘It’s what medicine should be about …he tilts the prism to see people find themselves again‘.
6. The Penguin Book of Hymns
‘This is where it all began- hymns were entertainment during assembly‘. If, like Lissa and I, your school day invariably began with an interminable assembly, you’ll know Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the New English Hymnal, and if, like us, you found assembly utterly tedious, you may also have lost yourself in the rich poetry of hymns. ‘The language is wonderful for seven year olds – there are words to ponder, rich vocabulary and imagery…. hymns gave a vocabulary that transcended class.’ Anyone who has read Crooked Heart, and grown to love Mattie, the former suffragette, will understand why Jerusalem, hymn of the suffragettes long before it became the W.I’s theme tune, is Lissa’s favourite. I’m enormously excited to hear that Lissa’s next book may be a Crooked Heart prequel, giving us more of Mattie and the Suffragettes.
Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans, published by Doubleday, £14.99