“Let’s not dwell on lives not lived, it won’t do any more.” There is an archness of tone throughout Kate Atkinson’s vibrant new novel, Shrines of Gaiety. The above line could be seen as a wink and nod to her second World War trilogy, whose first instalment, Life After Life, dwelled on the infinite number of possibilities that materialise when an author chooses to bring her characters back to life over and over again.
In this new book a large cast looks forward not backward, as they try to forget the horrors of the first World War. Set amid the gangs and showgirls of 1920s Soho, Shrines of Gaiety is certainly not free of death, but the author’s treatment of the subject is more in keeping with her crime novels than her literary fiction. There is an enjoyable, breezy style to the omniscient narration, which is centred around the family of Nellie Coker, queen of London’s nightlife.
Atkinson is one of Britain’s best-known novelists, with book sales of more than 7 million copies in the UK alone. Her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Award in 1995. Life After Life and A God in Ruins both won a Costa Award and were nominated for others. Her best-selling crime novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became a television series starring Jason Isaacs. Life After Life was also adapted for television, airing earlier this year on BBC.
The dexterous depiction of jazz-era London in Shrines of Gaiety would translate well to screen, though one imagines that the book’s prosaic, instantly forgettable title might have to change. Atkinson has a Dickensian touch when it comes to setting and character. Postwar Soho is louche, hedonistic (cocaine pastille, anyone?) and a dangerous place to be a young woman alone. It is an endlessly interesting world, populated by criminals, corrupt policemen, women who yearn to be famous, men who have returned from war “unable to cope with the peace”.
On the character front, there’s the formidable Nellie, who has shades of Peaky Blinders’ Aunt Polly, “very hard-nosed yet occasionally mawkishly sentimental”. An aspiring actor, Freda, whose street smarts aren’t enough to save her from the predatory managers of the West End. A policeman, Frobisher, whose marriage to a Belgian refugee is fraught with loss, the extent of which is revealed to him upon meeting Gwendolen, a delightfully devil-may-care librarian turned amateur spy.
Nellie’s six children are also distinctly drawn, from her daughter Edith, heir apparent to the clubs, to her stoic eldest son Niven: “[He] didn’t seem like anyone’s son. Some people were complete in themselves, as if born from the earth or the ocean, like some of the gods.” Elsewhere, physical descriptions are fresh and succinct: “She was charming, her dark hair in a sharp bob, a small retroussé nose.”
The action-heavy plot — jewellery heists, murdered girls, villainous Maltese businessmen, a novel within a novel — in a murky London underworld recalls Rose Tremain’s recent novel, Lily. The psychological insights of Ruth Rendell also come to mind. Save for a peppering of writerly words — uxorious, etiolated, ambrosial, cochineal, sybaritic — Atkinson’s prose is simple and clear, geared at moving the story along and managing the burden of frequent shifts in perspective.
Occasionally the writing can tend towards cliché. Frobisher’s wife Lottie was “plucked from the blighted remains of Ypres with nothing but a bulb of garlic in her pocket”. In another scene, “Nellie flinched, as if an icy hand had touched her nape”. The arch tone, meanwhile, can be a little too on the nose at times: “He wanted to overthrow the Queen of Clubs and make himself the King.” There’s a subplot involving a ghost called Maud that goes nowhere, and titled sections — An Awkward Age, Another Gentleman Caller — that feel anodyne and unnecessary. As a suspense device, Atkinson frequently shows us the aftershock of a bad event, before having a character recap the scene, which can take away from the immediacy of the action.
This lengthy book is sustained by the colourful world building and the astute understanding of character that has won Atkinson such acclaim in the past. She goes one further this time by taking inspiration from real life for the character of Nellie, who is based on Kate Meyrick, the infamous queen of Soho’s clubland.
The meticulous research sits easily with the fiction, from the antics of the all-female Forty Thieves Gang, to the ludicrous parties of the Bright Young Things, right down to Nellie’s personality and the way she treats her children: “Nothing was free in Nellie’s world, not even love. Perhaps especially not love.” Shrines of Gaiety is full of such discernments, a novel about the glittering world of postwar London, where nothing is quite as it seems.