Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson review – exuberant nightclub saga | Kate Atkinson

A sulphurous drollery animates Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson’s ensemble portrait of Soho’s underworld between the wars. It continues a run of novels – Life After Life, A God in Ruins, Transcription – that put a quirky self-conscious spin on period drama, their focus much sharper on the intricacies of character than the forces of history. But Atkinson is an expert juggler of both.

The year is 1926. Nellie Coker, matriarch and nightclub proprietor, has just been released from a six-month stretch in Holloway. Educated in Paris, widowed in Edinburgh, Nellie flourished in London after an ill-gotten windfall from a deceased landlady who happened to be a gangland fence. She manages her six children with the same impersonal efficiency as she runs the business, the Amethyst being the “gaudy jewel” in her string of clubs – others include the Crystal Cup, the Sphinx and the Pixie. While in prison her domain has been under threat from rivals. She’s also haunted by the drowned, dripping ghost of a former employee, Maud, yet another of the young women recently fished from the Thames – but did they kill themselves or are they murder victims?

That’s a question for Chief Inspector Frobisher, a melancholy “man of sighs” who’s a martyr to his depressive French wife, Lottie. He’d like to drive a Bentley, like Nellie’s, but can only afford an Austin 7: “Crime paid. Fighting it didn’t.” Frobisher has just hired capable Yorkshire lass Gwendolen Kelling to be his snoop inside Nellie’s regime, an alliance soon complicated by the burgeoning romantic attachment of his spy to Niven Coker, a sardonic charmer and Nellie’s older son. Gwendolen and Niven are united in being survivors of the first world war, she as a nurse, he a soldier, both now in thrall to the national mood of relief and exhaustion, which by 1926 is peaking towards a maniacal jollity.

Gwendolen, on furlough from her librarian’s job up north, is in London to search for two runaway girls, Freda and Florence, who are magnetised by the prospect of West End stardom. Freda in particular has a yen – and possibly a talent – ​​for the hoofer’s life. But first she must brave the squalid lodgings and the brutal attentions of businessmen: girls like her are merchandise in the meat-markets of clubland.

The cast of characters is lively and diffuse, although you wonder at times if the points of view are too many. The Maltese gangster and the bent copper, for example, might have been profitably pruned of their baggage. Shine all that light on motivation and you risk losing the shadows. But Atkinson loves her minor characters, and in the case of Nellie’s feckless younger son, dope addict Ramsay, she makes fine sport. His incompetence as a club manager is set against his dilettantish urge to be a writer, expressed in occasional excerpts from his terrible novel of Soho life, “The Age of Glitter”. Atkinson’s own writing is larded with literary references – Medea, The Duchess of Malfi, Paradise Lost, TS Eliot and Edward Thomas, The Green Hat by Michael Arlen – and in her exuberant swing between the high-and-low life of drugs and booze you may pick up traces of Patrick Hamilton, and the merest rumor of Waugh.

Real-life queen of clubs … Kate Meyrick, centre, with her daughters, in 1931. Photograph: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

An author’s note reveals that she closely consulted the autobiography of Kate Meyrick, a real-life queen of clubs who, like Nellie, elevated her children (two daughters were educated at Cambridge) and was imprisoned for breaking the licensing laws. Atkinson has read widely on the era, and it has certainly repaid the effort in her persuasive re-creation of Soho and Covent Garden both as working neighborhoods and nocturnal hunting grounds. Not all of the obvious bells are rung. The one thing most people know about 1926 is the General Strike, yet it deserves only the briefest reference here. Against that there is a fascinating glimpse into the fetid precincts of a Thames mortuary, Dead Man’s Hole, and unexpected sidelights on crime; the street thief who might snatch your bag is as likely to be a woman as a man, while a laughing policeman may turn out to be a psychopath. So many in this story pretend to be something they are not. Deception and disguise become a vital currency.

If there’s a slight disappointment in Shrines of Gaiety, it’s the slapdash ending. Having set up a grand denouement, Atkinson seems almost to tire of the plot, and hurries her characters, as it were, off stage. A chapter is devoted to What Happened Next … and we register their fates like aftertitles in a documentary. Even the ghosts end up shortchanged – didn’t Maud deserve a proper exit after the many appearances she put in? Nevertheless, this book is one to savour, for the energy, for the wit, for the tenderness of characterization that make Atkinson enduringly popular.

Molly & the Captain by Anthony Quinn will be published in October (Abacus). Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is published by Doubleday (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


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