Lissa Evans is fast becoming one my favourite authors and V for Victory only served to confirm this opinion. I’ve found her writing to be a true tonic for the pandemic. Evans has a rare gift for providing messages of hope and perseverance parcelled up in novels that are deft in both their description and how they dodge sentimentality. It was a delight to return to the house next to Hampstead Heath and check in on how its occupants are getting on.
Four years after Crooked Heart and a good decade or so after Old Baggage, the year is 1944 and Noel and Vee are trying to avoid the V2s and scrape a living from keeping lodgers. Vee is still posing as Noel’s Aunt Margery but after witnessing a road accident and being summoned to court, the game just might be up. The end of the war may be in sight but victory feels a long way away.
If Old Baggage was more companion to Crooked Heart than sequel, V for Victory unites the two stories. The characters of Heart are now living in the house which was so much the focus of Baggage. Mattie may be no longer physically present but even the reader can feel she is still very much there in spirit. Indeed, there are traces of sadness throughout the book for those absent friends from previous books. When a certain someone does make a reappearance, I got genuinely teary. But again, this is not a sad book. It is full of love. It’s about finding people who will love you fiercely and never give up. And reading this final chapter to the tale conjures up the same feeling of satisfaction as when one slots the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle into place.
One of the many things that I have loved about this series (trilogy? neither seem quite the right term) is the focus it gives to the female experience. Vee is not a typical heroine – she is prickly, sneaky and difficult. But she is also lonely in her role as guardian, still hoping for romance and lost trying to find it. A more heavy-handed writer would have sent Vee into the arms of a dashing hero but the love story here is between Vee and Noel, this makeshift mother and son. Noel’s muted – almost stoic – longing for parents has been a theme across the books. Four year-old Noel peered at Mattie in suspicion as he was dropped off on her doorstep. The eleven year-old we met in Heart was shellshocked without her. One of the most subtle moments within Victory comes when the reader realises at last that Noel has found what he was looking for. But the tears came again as Evans makes clear that whether they be living, dead or far away, all three of Noel’s mothers have loved him very much.
As a writer, Evans tends to be light on the plot. She gets away with it because her characterisation is so strong. Every member of her cast feels memorable from the various lodgers to the ghastly guests at the literary party. A particularly welcome returning character was Winnie, erstwhile member of Mattie’s doomed Amazons. All these years later, Winnie is working as an Air Raid Warden and trying to hold on to the memory of the man she married after a whirlwind romance but who has spent the last four years as a prisoner of war. She meets Noel on a bomb site and old memories are revived.
But more than that, Evans captures the particular type of heroism required to slog it through the daily grind of total war. The coronavirus pandemic is not the same as the war, no matter what certain factions would have us believe. But there are echoes which are similar. Every single one of the characters have their burdens to bear but they all persevere, with one notable exception. Discussing this disappointing specimen, a female character explains to Noel that the man had expected that life would be easy and that he had not known what to do when it was not. Talking about everyday heroism has become so meaningless after almost a year of lockdown but V for Victory made me remember again the grace required to keep on swimming when the storm is at its wildest.
It is easy to dismiss Victory as a mere domestic comedy but there is much more going on here. Over all three books, Evans’ characters have wrestled quietly with morality. When Noel first met Vee in Crooked Heart, she was a petty criminal. Mattie spends most of Old Baggage trying to square her morals with her ability to exist in the world. Now in Victory, the central pair are perpetuating a fraud as Vee impersonates Margery Overs. But they are both still two people trying to do the right thing. And schisms occur when Noel and Vee’s moral codes diverge. In a book filled with fantastic moments, I loved the scene when the guilt-stricken Vee is consoled that she has made her choices to protect Noel and her conscience can rest easy. Again, Evans grants her characters grace.
After three books, the house in Hampstead feels wonderfully familiar. Since the long ago days when it provided sanctuary for suffragettes, it has been a place of safety and refuge. I loved how Victory made it feel as if those who had passed through its doors were still present. Florrie’s photograph is still in the house. Noel imagines Ida scrubbing the floors and realises that they have probably used the same potato peeler. Someone looks at Noel and remarks that he is very like Mattie. These characters feel like old friends. I would love to think that one day we will see them again. Noel has the makings of a fine young man, gifted in all subjects and a whizz in the kitchen to boot. Seeing him sweetly befuzzled by his letter from the lovely Genevieve Lumb from next door though reminds us that he still has lots of growing up to be done and many adventures ahead. But I think that he may have just walked off into the sunset and that is fine too.
V for Victory is a quiet novel but so full of wit and wisdom that it feels like a true literary hug. Best enjoyed by fans of the earlier books, it is comfort reading of the highest quality.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Random House on August 27th 2020
Genres: Fiction, War & Military, City Life, Coming of Age, Family Life, General, Friendship, Historical, World War II, Humorous, Literary, Women
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