I’ve read and adored every one of Kate Atkinson’s books and her latest, Shrines of Gaiety (Penguin Random House 2022) is no exception. Atkinson is a phenomenal storyteller, creating in each book a complex and nuanced world, peopled with fascinating characters.
Her writing is assured and confident. Every character is so well developed that you can imagine a whole other book entirely devoted to them. She has a gift of the unexpected – main or popular characters that you feel will survive are summarily disposed of, and we are treated to a snapshot of the future of minor characters with brief summaries at the end of the novel.
Reading this novel as a writer, it occurred to me that she breaks so many ‘rules’ – too many adverbs! Head hopping! Unnecessary words! Changes in POV! Yet of course she not only gets away with it but uses it to enhance her writing. She is a master and knows the rules so well that she also knows how to break them and still make it all work.
Shrines of Gaiety is set in the heady days of 1926, in an England still recovering from the Great War. Inspired by real people and incidents, the book focuses on the burgeoning nightlife of London, the outrageous parties, the clubs of Soho, the drugs and gambling, where minor royals dance with hostess girls, and foreign dignitaries rub shoulders with cardinals, peers, politicians and gangsters. At the centre of a string of such clubs is the notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless, ambitious, cunning, and her six children, a variety of interesting and challenging personalities. They help run the clubs (and the family fortune), one writes a novel, one is a drug addict, one an ex-soldier, one having an affair, etc…the family runs the full gamut of the dark underbelly of society. Into this world arrive a detective (another great character) and a librarian (or would-be detective), and these two only add to the complex and layered storyline.
This is a world in which nothing is as it seems. Any deductions drawn from the opening pages are contradicted by the end. The teeming masses of London’s secret life involves murder, powerful enemies, corrupt law enforcement, prostitutes, crime rings and lost girls. A magnificent novel from one of the best English-language writers today.