Having enjoyed Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, I’d been looking forward to reading V for Victory so was delighted to receive a physical ARC during lockdown when most review copies were ebooks. This is the latest installment in a loosely linked series about characters lucky enough to have crossed the radar of the inimitable Mattie Simpkin, a glorious creation by the author. I enjoyed this tale at least as much as her previous works – and that is high praise.
The story is set in London during the closing months of the Second World War. Noel, Mattie’s godson, is now nearly fifteen years old and being schooled at home by an eclectic group of tutors. They are all lodgers at Green Shutters, the house Noel inherited when Mattie died. His guardian, Vee, goes by the name Margery Overs. She masquerades as the boy’s aunt and worries about repercussions should she be found not to be who she claims. In their salubrious Hampstead neighbourhood, the running of a boarding house – necessary for income – is regarded with disdain.
Another key character in the tale is Winnie, one of many wardens stationed across the city who help coordinate necessary resources when bombs wreak their devastation. Winnie was one of Mattie’s Amazons, along with her twin sister, Avril. The latter has literary ambitions which provide a delicious injection of humour. The author has a knack for dropping observations about human behaviour into every situation, gently mocking pretensions while whisking the reader through each scene.
The vivid picture provided of wartime London is one of the best I have read. And yet, despite the destruction and deprivations, this remains a tale of people – their daily challenges and concerns. The characters are far from perfect people but their flaws and foibles are mined to ensure the reader recognises why they have acted in ways that may be regarded with censure. The unlikable are those who look out only for themselves.
The various plot threads are engaging and rattle along at a good pace. Vee’s grey life finds colour when she is befriended by an American GI. Winnie’s experiences as a warden offer a grim evocation of the role – a stark contrast to the gilded life led by her sister. Noel’s settled existence is threatened when he is visited by a soldier with knowledge about his past.
There are standout scenes that particularly resonate. I enjoyed the literary party where it seemed everyone wished to talk about the book they had inside them – with no interest in anyone else’s conversation unless they saw an opportunity for personal advancement. The depiction of the rocket attack Winnie deals with is strengthened by the nuances of what is horrific but has become everyday.
The descriptions of people throughout remain entertaining. For example, of Avril’s husband, a kindly man working for the Foreign Office who adores his confidently beautiful wife:
“He was a very nice man, diffident and slightly bewildered, like a staid dog who’d been taken for an unexpectedly vigorous and sustained walk.”
The lives rendered add depth to an affecting story sparked by humour. Tension is added by the precarious nature of their existence. Death is as likely from a road traffic accident as from a bombing raid. Moments of happiness can be found by those willing to recognise and work for them.
Although often poignant, the tale offers hope and a reminder of the good in people from all walks of life. Beautifully written, this is a rare and recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.