Fiona Mozley is a sensualist. Her Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Elmet, described the forestry of northern England in splendid, lush fecundity. The food was always succulent, textured, warm. “Sex doesn’t feature in Elmet,” Mozley told the Times Literary Supplement, “but it also appears on every page.”
In Hot Stew, sex features categorically – the novel’s epicentre is a brothel – and yet it’s not what we usually see in fiction. For the prostitute, it’s just a job. For a young couple, it’s subordinated to mechanics. Agatha, a business mogul and the novel’s villain, satisfies her needs through “younger, less powerful” men. When she fastens one to her bed, the author deploys a rare adverbial: “‘Kinky,’ he says, mundanely.” In Hot Stew, sex and sensuality are not one and the same.
Hot Stew is about the banality of sex, and it’s about Britain – don’t let that put you off. It opens in London, Soho, in a 17th century building that’s now a restaurant. A common snail defies the fate of escargot and journeys through the streets, taking the reader quickly through the neighbourhood’s extensive history. From galloping hunters crying “So! Ho!” (giving the place its name), we cover the French emigration, the cholera outbreak, Karl Marx’s refuge, the world wars, social liberation, the 1980s, 1990s, and the millennium.
Mozley’s prose echoes – and pays homage to – the metre of the Bard. Her 21st century characters have names of Shakespearean resonance: Lorenzo, Bastian, Tobias and Richard. Present-day Soho is being attacked from within by gentrification. Agatha, the dominating tycoon, plans to tear down old buildings, develop new flats. One old building is a brothel, home for a stronghold of Soho prostitutes. They’re led by Precious and Tabitha, partners in vindication; they “are in love, but they are not lovers”.
In every description of the Londonscape, history is abundantly hidden. A king’s crown is found in a construction yard by Cheryl Lavery, an ageless street dweller who lives below the brothel. Lavery is a kind of spirit of Soho. With her partner, a magician, she frequents the Aphra Behn, a pub named for the first woman in England to identify as a professional writer.
The pub is the watering hole for Lorenzo, a mixed-race actor born in the neighbourhood. His drinking buddy is Richard, a beefy older henchman for one of Soho’s deceased crime lords. That man, appropriately named Don, fathered Agatha, the heiress now razing Soho. Agatha meets her real estate lawyer, Tobias, at a club she describes as “the tepid dregs of British imperial power”.
That Agatha is female suggests an evolution of the guard; that she is half Russian speaks to modern economics. Think of the oligarchs buying up 1 Hyde Park. Tobias’s progeny, on the other hand, is Bastian, a friendly gent who proves to be sexually – but not kinkily – submissive.
Despite so many characters, the novel doesn’t flail, it succeeds as a force. There are, conservatively, six characters in the main cast. Six is conservative because it discounts four people who are ethereal but extraordinarily impactful, and five others who are more significant than “supporting”. Also excluded is the snail who opens the book and pops up at turning points, not unlike a Shakespearean chorus. But at minimum, the cast is twice the size of what’s typically found in the contemporary novel. To direct so many through a labyrinthine story in just over 300 pages is a kind of mastery.
The careful ingredients of Hot Stew combine to expose the potency of old narratives. If history is literally – and literarily – built into our surroundings, it follows that we construct standards from old stories. Shakespeare and the Netflix period drama alike tell us the same things: that sex is the greatest sensual experience, that male pleasure is the highest pleasure, that capital gain equates to happiness, and that love is impervious to environment.
Rape on TV
In Hot Stew, sex can be about labour and economics, power and human need, but it’s not necessarily the great thing we were told about – and neither, for that matter, is Britain.
Through Lorenzo, the actor, we hear a director make the invidious “duty to bear witness” argument for showing rape on TV. An exploitative photographer takes Precious’s photograph and tells her, “I seek fame and fortune through the beautiful rendition of other people’s pathetic lives”.
Does Hot Stew interrogate itself under similar terms? As a work of fiction that pursues “reality”, does it say, “this, too, is a rendering”? The answer, to be fair, is a debate about form, metaphor and genre-mixing that’s too long for this review. Nevertheless, in every conceptual detail, possibly to exhaustion, Hot Stew presses its truth about sex. Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe that sensation is less the writer’s touch and more the reader’s eye: once you see it, it’s everywhere.