Sunday 23 October 2011

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson excels in literary ventriloquism, getting under the skin of a character and telling us their story, seemingly in their own words. Like all people who love to talk about themselves, her protagonists reveal much more than they realise. So it is with Queenie Dove, the narrator of this fast and wily adventure set in London's East End in the 1940s and beyond. The novel seems, at first, like the triumphant and enjoyable self-aggrandising of a fast woman, a talented thief on the make, laughing in the face of machismo and misfortune. It becomes, in the end, a moving and sobering account of survival, sharply told and brilliantly researched.

The self-christened Queenie is determined not to have her listeners feel sorry for her, but the circumstances of her life speak for themselves. She is a child of the slums, born to an alcoholic and irresponsible but charismatic father and a high-spirited but disadvantaged mother. Both parents, as well as Queenie and her younger brother Bobby, are in and out of jails, nuthouses, borstals, cells and halfway houses, existing in a shady world of criminal gangs, shoplifters, vice, clubs, black-marketeers and scammers. It is a seedily glamorous existence where the thrills are cheap, the decor is tacky, the perfume's gone off and sex and violence are close (and closely linked) just beneath the surface.

The events of the novel are related by Queenie with the brassy belligerence of a practiced confidence trickster. The period details are big, brash and bold: the Italian cafes, police raids on private clubs, new fashions, popular songs and criminal revelations seem glossed from newspaper reports and scandalised headlines. The era, like its characters, is revealed with broad brushstrokes that evoke the on-the-make excitement of Lucky Bunny's scrappy, big-talking personalities. Similarly, the action is fast and dramatic. There are heists and periods in the slammer, raids and thefts, screaming fights and rigged races.... but it is a testament to Dawson's skill that beneath the excitement there is always the ghost of the girl Queenie used to be, anxious, unloved, frightened, tough and determined to keep on going. Queenie sees herself as a success, but she is not. She sees herself as a liberated woman, but she is not. She sees herself as a main character, but she is not. She is a gangster's moll, a bit part player, a woman with resilience but little power. She is heartbreakingly proud of her skills as a thief; but she is not so skilled that she doesn't get caught. She is not an agent or a heroine, a leader or a mastermind.

Despite its surface thrills and spills and Krays era glamour, Lucky Bunny is a novel of great concern, human sympathy and seriousness. It is a novel of ideas and society, disguised as a romp. It never forgets the person behind the lipsticked and audacious self-creation that is 'Queenie Dove', whose real name we never learn. It deals with the consequences of poverty, the effects of violence, the attraction and risk of criminality and the forging of character through necessity and deprivation. The novel ends with a stunningly depicted night time train robbery ...whose end result I won't reveal... but for all its grand scale and luridly attractive action, the reader comes away with a far subtler appreciation. In the end I understood and admired Queenie Dove - and admired Jill Dawson, too, for creating something so fine from such brutish elements.