I remember somebody once pointing out to me that while most of the literature coming out of and focusing on the First World War was to do with life in the trenches, that which took the 1939–45 war as its subject was far more likely to concentrate on the home front. That may be very much an over-generalisation, but it certainly holds true where Lissa Evans‘s new novel, V for Victory, is concerned. The book begins in the autumn of 1944. London is being ravaged by V2s, rockets which were launched from mobile units only to come crashing to earth five minutes later with little or no warning, devastating buildings and killing in just a few short months over 2000 Londoners. Fourteen-year-old Noel is living in Hampstead with his aunt Marjorie Overs. Except she isn’t his aunt and her name isn’t Marjorie Overs. It takes quite some time for the full story of their relationship to be revealed but what we do learn very early on is that for some years previously Noel had lived in the house they now occupy with his godmother, Miss Matilda Simpkin, who is dead. Quite how he comes to be there at this point with his non-aunt Marjorie, who we actually know as Vee, isn’t clear, but what is obvious is that there is a great deal of affection between the two of them and that Vee, who is doing her best to keep the wolf from the door by taking in lodgers, is doing a very good job of bringing the teenager up. The situation rather reminded me of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, given that, like the Fossil girls, Evans’ Noel is relying for his education on the strengths of the various individuals who live in the same house.
English and Latin from Mr Jepson, who‘s a journalist. Mathematics and bookkeeping from Mr Reddish – he‘s a cashier – sciences from Dr Parry-Jones, French from Mrs Applebee… cookery from Miss Zawadska.
Running parallel with the story of Noel and Vee is that of Winnie, an ARP warden for whom the war has meant far more responsibility than she found in her previous role as a bit part actress and who has grown into the job until she is regarded by her colleagues with respect and affection. Only a month after their marriage Winnie’s husband, Emlyn, was among those captured at Dunkirk, and as a consequence their relationship since has relied on censored and stilted correspondence most of which, on Emlyn’s part, is centred around his plans for the home they will have when the war is over,
she had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.
Winnie is a twin; not, however, an identical twin. Avril is glamorous, svelt, works in the Ministry of Information and is married to a man who is currently abroad, doing something for the Foreign Office. She is also embarking on a new career, as a novelist. Her book, surprise surprise, is about an ARP warden but the life that she portrays is one that Winnie singularly fails to recognise.
Rodrick’s profile had an ancient blankness, as of a frieze in a torch-lit passageway. Binnie turned, silently, knelt on the mattress and slid her cushioned form alongside his. “If we died now there’d be no more pretence,” she said. She imagined their two bodies fused by violence into one melded, bloodied being, ensexed eternally.
Fortunately, Evans herself is much more prosaic and realistic about not only the perils but also the sheer weariness that Londoners are facing day by day five years into a war that never seems as if it’s going to end. She speaks of the way in which everyone is bored of everything, not simply the dangers that they face, but the lack of food, the lack of fuel, the lack of colour, the lack of joy. And she also hints at the determination of those who have lived through the experience that when it is over things are going to be different. She never actually ventures into the political realm, but she does speak of the returning soldiers shocked by the dismal grind of London life for whom tin medals weren’t going to be enough this time round. I don’t think I’ve ever understood the reason behind the election of the Labour Government in 1944 quite so clearly before.
I‘m told that some of the characters in this novel appeared in the author’s previous book, Old Baggage, a copy of which I own but which I have yet to get round to reading. I’m sure, however, that those of you who have read it will very much enjoy meeting these people again in what I thought was a very satisfying novel and I look forward now to going back and encountering them in their earlier incarnations.
With thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for a review copy.