Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson – a complex and clever look at London nightlife and more in 1926

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

From a large cast of characters, an amazing sense of London life in 1926 and a deep understanding of what people are capable of, the latest novel by this talented author is so different from her other novels yet shows the same commitment to making historical fiction vivid and alive. This is a post First World War novel in which there have been losses on the battlefield, but this a time when girls and drugs were the valuable commodities on the streets of London.  Five clubs that operated on the edge of the law are owned by the redoubtable Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family of six children, fearsome, devious and haunted. Run by Nellie with a rod of iron, her five oldest children are charged with tasks to protect and advance themselves and the family empire. Not that it is easy; the success of the clubs with their frequently dubious business set ups depends on alcohol laws being adapted, blind eyes being turned to the fate of hostesses and other practices. Police raids, competition and those who have designs on the clubs as well as those who feel visceral anger towards Nellie are circling.

 Into this storm enters a police Inspector charged with sorting out the nightlife of London. Inspector John Frobisher is a quiet man, thoughtful and concerned with trying to sort out the gangs’ influence and the more violent elements doing business in the city, while suspecting that there is corruption in Bow Street station, where he has been assigned.  The remarkable Gwendolen, until recently a librarian in York, has just arrived in London in search of her sister’s friend Freda, and decides that there may be more than one way of finding her. Meanwhile Freda has decided to come to London to find fame and fortune, in the mistaken belief that, as her friend Florence says, the streets are paved with gold. It doesn’t take her long to realise that the only gold to be found is not all that it seems, and that she may have to make sacrifices to survive.

This is a book that contains action and twists, surprises and complex situations. It exposes some of the downsides of the life of the Bright Young Things, desperately trying to find new sensations to cover their memories. Nellie’s offspring includes the clever and enigmatic Niven, the oldest, whose experience includes surviving the horrors of the Somme. Ramsay is a complete contrast as he exists on the boarders of the fashionable life, unable to cope with Nellie’s expectations.

This is a book with enormous range, in terms of the themes it tackles, and the way it interleaves the characters’ stories. Gwendolen is a bright spark for more than one character; she sees things differently and seems unchangeable. Freda may be one of the youngest in the novel but has a fascinating backstory. There is subtle humour as well as a complex plot as it becomes clear that often people are not what they seem. There are bodies found and missing people, drinks and dancing, celebrations and disasters. The descriptions of London are simply brilliant, almost visible in the contrasts, full of the colours, sounds and smalls of a city in the interwar years. This is such an impressive novel in so many ways, with such a range of characters, situations and a clever plot with subplots. I enjoyed the style of writing, the depth of characterisation – Nellie’s omnipresence is frightening, and some of Frobisher’s discoveries very sad. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review, and I would thoroughly recommend it.   

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – three stages in a woman’s life – secrets of War and beyond

Transcription by Kate Atkinson | Waterstones


A novel of wartime in the hands of Kate Atkinson becomes a message that the effects of the Second World War lasted a long time, and the effects were not obvious. The novel is told by Juliet Armstrong in three different time periods – 1940, at the beginning of the war, 1950 when Juliet works for the BBC, and 1981, when Juliet is involved in a road accident.  The book moves around between the two earlier periods, when in both times Juliet had secrets and told lies. The book is told from her point of view, but not in Juliet’s actual voice; apart from not telling the complete truth to any person she keeps vital things from the reader. This novel unusually has a bibliography and the author notes the sources of her inspiration, and the novel is full of the sort of research that conveys a real sense of the times. The writing is incredibly vivid, full of the sights and sounds of a London at war and then in post war austerity. There are several themes which run throughout the book, of Juliet’s continual conflicts between her actual life and her dreams. That is further confusion beyond the various roles that Juliet is pressed into, the secrets that she keeps. This is an ambitious book written on several levels, and adds up to an intense historical thriller and character study.


In 1940 Juliet is requested to become involved in clerical work relating to a secret department attempting to deal with fifth columnists, British people who were followers of Hitler and his plans from within British society. She has a tragic background which means she has no family herself, and few real friends. Two of the men she works most closely with have their own agendas; Peregrine Gibbons is a man with a big secret, and Godfrey Toby is the man who attracts the suspects and finds out what they are actually plotting, but he is in turn suspected by at least one other person. Juliet, innocent of relationships cannot or chooses not to see what is going on, as witnessed by her inner dialogue which the reader is given. She is asked to undertake a further role of subterfuge, which brings with it additional problems and even danger. After the war there are still suspicions, still dangers, in memory and potentially more. Despite the black comedy of the BBC children’s programme Juliet must oversee, there are currents of activity beneath the surface. 


This novel has a certain level of humour alongside the confusion and some brutal moments. Juliet is a complicated character, as there are implications of what she really knows and intends. As she goes about her life we do not really find out everything there is to know, and we are always left unsure about what she really understands. Atkinson is a very realistic and intense writer in this book; managing to find the humour in everyday speech and cliches, as well as describe a setting of fog and certain lifestyles such as the fancy sofas, the problems of typing from recordings and the problems of working out what people really mean. It is a complex read, and ultimately a satisfying one, and is a picture of a complicated character in a range of difficult situations. I recommend it as a strong read with much to admire in the construction of a marvellous series of characters.


I think this is the first Atkinson book I have actually read, although I admit to owning a few! I believe her well known first book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” features on our book group list later in the year, so I must read it at some point. I remember seeing a couple of episodes of a Jackson Brodie  television series a few years ago, so I will see if I can find one of those to read as well!