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.