Doing what comes naturally …

This post was edited and republished into its original place in my blog timeline from my lost posts archive.

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson is one of those authors who appears to write a different book every time, although when you look underneath, there are links.  The Great Lover tells the story of poet Rupert Brooke partly through the eyes of maid Nell; Watch me Disappear explored the effects of a girl disappearing in a Fenland village in the 1970s and echoes contemporary child abductions and murders; Fred and Edie tells the story of star-crossed lovers, executed for murdering Edie’s husband in 1923. All have a geographical base from South London through the East End into East Anglia and the Fens; but she also has a pre-occupation with working class roots and criminal underclasses. These elements, both geographical and sociological, are both well to the fore in her latest novel Lucky Bunny.

Queenie Dove is an Eastender born before the war to a Irish Moll and her big bruiser and small time crook of a father, Tommy.  Life is hard for Queenie and her younger brother Bobby – there’s never enough food, Dad in and out of the nick, and Moll slowly going mad and ending up in hospital; only her Nan has any sense. They get evacuated to Ely, but Queenie can’t hack it and returns to London where her Dad is now shacked up with Annie – formerly of the ‘Green Bottles’ – a group of goodtime girls, shoplifters and whores. With lead Green Bottle Gloria’s help, Queenie becomes good at hoisting – shoplifting, but even she gets caught and is sent to reform school where she meets Stella, who will become her best friend.  The two go on to have many adventures, resulting in Queenie falling for Tony, the nephew of the Italian coffee-bar owner.  Queenie and Tony have a tempestuous relationship – so similar in many ways to that of Moll and Tommy, but Queenie is determined to have a future with her daughter and eventually bails out after one beating too many.

You can’t help but warm to Queenie, however naughty she may be, as she is determined right from the start to aim for something better for herself.  She sees herself as lucky; lucky that she survives everything that life throws at her. From outside the book though, it’s clear that she’s stuck in the same vicious circle as her parents were – at least until she leaves Tony and escapes her fate – then she’s lucky!  There are questions of nature versus nurture too, growing up in poverty, Dad in jail, mother a dipso with post-natal depression, there’s little wonder that it affects the kids with them ending up in a mini-crime wave themselves.

Queenie’s adventures are grounded in rich period detail. Being evacuated, and the tragic events at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943 when hundreds died on the steps, (fictionalised in a recent novel, The Report), through to the world of Soho’s coffee bars in the 50s, Ruth Ellis, Diana Dors and culminating in the Great Train Robbery in 1963, when Queenie reaches thirty years old. That’s where Dawson leaves her, looking forward to the rest of her life.

I would have liked to have slightly less of childhood Queenie and more of the post-school teenager into twenty-something young woman – Queenie’s early years did take up nearly half the book which made for a slow start. Queenie tells her story how she wants to hear it, and she doesn’t ask for our sympathy or to understand her morals. It did leave me wondering though, what happened next to Queenie Dove?  (8/10)

Source: Review copy.

Jill Dawson, Lucky Bunny (Sceptre, 2011). paperback, 304 pages.

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