Jill Dawson’s greatest talent, perhaps, and one of many, is an instinct for literary ventriloquism. This is immediately apparent in her most recent novel, Lucky Bunny, an energetic romp through the life of a woman criminal in the era spanning 1930s to 1960s. Lucky Bunny is an exploration of self-deception, the extent to which misfortune is fuelled by its victim’s collusion, and also revisits the theme of violent relationships, explored by Dawson in earlier work.
The era of the novel was a time when the roles of the sexes were clearly delineated, when men emphatically ‘did not change nappies.’ The narrator, Queenie, following in the tradition of heroines such as Moll Flanders, Becky Sharp, Emma Bovary, is unwilling to surrender to the constraint of tradition, however, and resolves to fashion her life according to her own design.
Her first step towards empowerment is the choice of a ‘cracking’ name for herself. Queenie. ‘I wanted it, I took it, I made it mine.’
But this is more than the racy memoir of a female criminal after the style of Moll Flanders. Issues regarding nature and nurture skulk throughout the text. What is choice, what is instinct? ‘Does anyone ‘transcend’ their childhood?’
Queenie perceives herself, ‘from day one,’ to be an ‘optimist’ like her beloved Nan: ‘muvver.’ of her father, Lucky Boy Tommy. But is this an inherited trait, or an expression of her individuality? Our first hint of the vulnerability hidden underneath her confident facade is revealed in her plaintive pondering: ‘Surely there’s a bit of me that’s just me. It can’t only be genetics and environment, can it?’
There are obvious choices such as the theft of a bottle of milk to feed her autistic brother Bobby, her first criminal act, that shape Queenie’s life. Other incidents are more ambiguous. ‘That baby is winking at me!’ career criminal Lucky Boy declares on seeing her the first time in her crib. ‘The gel’s on my side, Molly, and don’t you forget it.’ Was it fate, luck, a crusted eyelid that ‘wouldn’t budge,’ the instinctive recognition of a kindred spirit? She is instantly bonded with this man, a real charmer, ‘the ladies all cock their heads at him like little birds,’ who is nevertheless ‘bad as socks,’ and frequently causes a room to ‘crackle’ with his anger.
On the other hand, Queenie feels no sympathy for her Irish mother, ironically named Moll, already at eighteen the mother of two, and drinking ‘like a fish.’ Nan declares the loss of Moll’s mother while a child leaves her devoid of any idea ‘on God’s bleedin green earth’ about mothering. Witnessing her father’s abuse towards Moll, Queenie vows ‘no-one’s ever going to throw a shoe at me.’
Queenie’s choice of man, however, is clearly biased by paternal imprint, landing her in a marriage as violent as her mother’s, despite her girlhood resolution to choose differently.
Questions are raised in the book about the effects of poverty, the power of money to transform lives. A lesson Queenie learns early on, when greater affluence changes her and Bobby into ‘children in books – safe and good, with kind parents.’ Unfortunately, the rozzers turn up pretty sharpish to cart Lucky Boy off to jail. The family is reduced once more to dire poverty, with momentous results.
Although need is the motivation for Queenie’s first crime, the feeling it inspires, ‘like shredding things, tearing things up, making them flutter in the wind,’ results in a life changing epiphany. ‘They’ll never stop me. I can do it…what I like. It’s mine…this world, and I want it, I do – I do.’
But not all choices in the tale are Queenie’s. She is separated from her beloved Nan, who is crushed to death, one of 173, in the infamous Bethnal Green Tube disaster.
The pace is fast, the writing sprinkled with humour and heartful moments of sensually poetic imagery. Queenie, despite questionable morals, is charismatic and totally believable. The vivacity of her voice hooks the reader from the first.
In an interview, Dawson explains how she sees apparently inconsequential minutiae of daily life as being the plot, rather than simply enhancing it. A quirk of Bobby’s, disclosed finally to be a pivotal detail in the resolution of the action, illustrates this view.
Eventually, Queenie appears to vanquish heredity by dint of her ‘own talent,’ her ‘naughtiness,’ thereby providing the ‘cookies-and-milk life’ tasted briefly in her own childhood for her daughter Maria.
Despite a framing device which opens the story at its end, apparently removing the final element of surprise, satisfying revelations still follow.
Early in the book, Nan foretells, ‘One day your ship will come in.’ And so it does. But whether the changes in Queenie’s life arise out of overcoming her original imprint, or are simply the fulfilment of Nan’s legacy of optimism, remains open to speculation.
Jill Dawson is an award winning poet, script writer, and novelist. Fred and Edie was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread and Orange Prizes; Wild Boy was the first ever novel to be long-listed for the British Academy Book Prize; Watch Me Disappear was long-listed for the 2006 Orange Prize. She has been awarded three British Arts Council awards. She also mentors new writers under the Gold Dust programme.
Lucky Bunny, selected by Philip Hoare as The Daily Telegraph Book of the Year, has been nominated for the London Book Award 2012. It is also one of the 2012 Fiction Uncovered titles.