Lucky Bunny is Jill Dawson’s seventh novel, and it serves as further confirmation that she’s both one of the most talented and underrated novelists of her generation, and certainly one with a most remarkable capacity to cover a wide range of subjects, from Rupert Brooke to the Thompson-Bywaters murder case to autism in nineteenth-century France. As with her previous works, including Wild Boy, Fred and Edie, and The Great Lover, Dawson chooses here to tackle a particular era in history through the lens of her protagonist. The result is a precise, even weave of pacy narrative and historical detail.
From the very first page it’s impossible not to feel attached to Queenie, the narrator. It’s not her real name, she notes, but one that she chose when she sloughed off the ‘plain’ one given to her at birth: ‘A cracking name. I wanted it, I took it, I made it mine.’ It’s this attitude, this utterly bullish raison d’etre, that carries her through her hard early life: a childhood in Blitz-torn Bethnal Green, teenage years spent institutionalised (a quick stint at Holloway and then an ‘approved school’ for wayward girls), early womanhood enmeshed in the vice-ridden world orbiting around the vice-ridden Soho of the 1950s.
The book rides on Queenie entirely — on her being both believable and worthy of the reader’s affection. This is where Dawson’s confident control shines most, in particular through the subtle way that in which she ages Queenie’s voice as the book progresses. Queenie is neither an innocent victim of the harsh world into which she was born, nor a scheming, amoral villainess; rather, she swings between the two poles with an ambiguity that feels genuine and human. Her gateway to crime is the theft of a bottle of milk to feed herself and her neglected brother Bobby; as Queenie matures, her ‘hoists’ and other rackets become less about subsistence and more about indulgence, of testing what she and her best friend Stella, a rather more committed criminal, can get away with. But despite her hardness, Queenie has a believable vulnerability, her love for her family her Achilles’ heel. She’s haunted by her mother’s mental illness, her father’s irresponsibility, her boyfriend’s abuse, and the reader feels real empathy — but Dawson also does not absolve Queenie of some responsibility for her misfortune.
Alongside Queenie, the geography of London is the other most important character. The action pounds through the streets of Soho; a getaway car is driven across Waterloo Bridge; Queenie and Stella acquire a fancy new council flat in an estate that looks over the Lauriston Road in Bethnal Green. For contrast, there’s the peaceful landscape of the Fens. Queenie and Bobby are evacuated there during the Blitz, and though she longs and fights to go home to the East End, her brief stint in the countryside preoccupies her, a counterfoil to her glamorous life of urban crime.
At times, perhaps, Dawson’s devotion to place-setting leaves the reader feeling a little bit of unfulfilled desire for a bit more emotional depth — some of the supporting characters feel slightly cipher-like and uncomplicated in contrast to the richness of the setting. But ultimately, Lucky Bunny is a rare book in which the protagonist, place and plot rightly share equal billing, and the results are rich.