Unsentimental Sentiments: The Work Of Lissa Evans
The British don’t do warm writing. We are allergic to excessive displays of sentiment, a wartime hangover from not making a fuss and just getting on with it. We play things down. When a deranged neighbour firebombed her front garden, my old agent dismissed the incident by waving her hand and saying, ‘It merely singed a fuchsia.’ It’s the sort of thing Mattie, Lissa Evans’ heroine in ‘Old Baggage’, might have said. She speaks plainly, clearly and instructively. She inspires young minds but turning them outwards to the world, not inwards to the self.
I think it’s fair to say that while Lissa Evans’ earliest books, ‘One One Out’ and ‘Spencer’s List’ are utterly pleasurable, she was feeling her way towards something more distinctive. In ‘Their Finest Hour And A Half’, a tale of artistes attempting to make a morale-boosting low budget British film in 1941, there’s a sense of wry amusement in even the darkest hours. Not detached, though – committed rather, as detachment leads to the more coolly observed novels of Kate Atkinson, and at their most British and misanthropic the memoirs of Edward St Aubyn.
‘Crooked Heart’ introduced us to 10 year-old Noel, packed off for safety from London, only to end up scamming innocent rural locals with his temporary carer, the unscrupulous Vee. It was one of the most delightful books of the year. Now, in ‘Old Baggage’, Evans performs a neat side-step to give us more insight into Mattie, the sturdy former suffragette who raised Noel in the previous novel. The book asks an interesting question; what do you do with your time after you’ve fought your biggest battle? The answer, in part at least, is that you choose another battle.
With Mattie, Evans has created a compelling character who is beloved for her forthrightness but too blind to see her own failings. Learning to let go just a little is a hard lesson, and one that comes as a shock to the unshockable Mattie. She reminds me a little of Miss Jean Brodie, gathering her girls to fight wars but not seeing that the girls may have other wars to fight. I sense Evans may have a third volume up her sleeve detailing Mattie’s first war.
So, is it wrong to write warmly? The descriptions, as always, delight. In ‘Old Baggage’ a drawer proves to be ‘lambent with silverfish’, and someone slaps their knees before rising ‘like knocking dust from a cushion’. The books contain an arsenal of neatly observed metaphors. The settings are domestic but richly explored – and that’s the word I keep coming back to with this delightful author – ‘enriched’. She writes sentiment without sentiment in a peculiarly English manner that is cherishable and unique.