Shrines of Gaiety: A Novel

  • By Kate Atkinson
  • Doubleday
  • 416 pp.

A raucous, Dickensian jaunt through Jazz Age London.

Shrines of Gaiety: A Novel

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you might take Kate Atkinson’s latest for a spin. It’s outstanding. Set in 1920s London, Shrines of Gaiety is aswarm with the playful, oh-so-familiar devices of popular storytelling, and Atkinson lays them on thick: confused identities, narrowly missed encounters, and fateful intersections of happenstance and luck.

These authorial shenanigans support a narrative voice that’s distinct from the Scottish novelist’s earlier work; it’s a stylistic departure slick with misdirection and sly reversals of expectation. These strokes enrich, rather than distract from, Atkinson’s neatly wrought storyline. Gaiety’s plot — spurred on by a Middlemarchian tapestry of characters — canters on relentlessly, a throwback to Victorian models. Throughout, Atkinson layers in more than enough killings, betrayals, and gritty atmospheric vignettes to thrill any but the most dogmatic among the just-describe-what-happens-next crowd.

A trio of formidable women dominates the cast. Nellie Coker is the shady impresario of five successful nightclubs and the mater familias for six blissfully self-absorbed offspring. The book opens on a raucous spectacle of the curious as Nellie is released from London’s Holloway Prison after a six-month stint for liquor-license violations.

The next principal we meet is Gwendolen Kelling, a plucky, get-it-done librarian and Atkinson’s upright heroine-in-waiting. Gwen, counter to type, has somewhere misplaced her virginity — and quite mysteriously so, as we never learn the details. She has descended on London to find two runaway teens from back home in York. The instigator of said escape is 15-year-old Freda Murgatroyd. A charmed innocent, Freda has outgrown her limited provincial franchise as a child actress and is determined to make her fortune as a dancer — or, better yet, an ingenue — in the West End.

Swirling about these three are Nellie’s adult, mostly empty-headed, children and a slew of policemen (both the good and the bad, the clever and the plodding). Also attendant: a horde of ominous ruffians, chorines, showmen, hookers, and Members of Parliament. Scores of these merit multiple chapters of their own as they cruise about London in pastimes linked to the main action of the story.

This approach makes significant demands on the book’s narrator, and Atkinson steps forward grandly here with a wondrously freewheeling approach. Her narrator regularly eases into a character’s consciousness and then gracefully out again, sometimes reporting dispassionately, sometimes hovering like an opinionated observer, and occasionally slipping in expository flashbacks:

“[Freda’s] mother, Gladys, once the chronicler of her daughter’s looks, had recently lost interest and transferred her energy into finding a new husband to sponsor her indolent life. Gladys had, in the past, exploited Freda’s looks for an income, but the investment was no longer paying off. ‘You’ve lost your bloom,’ she said to Freda. Freda frowned. She felt she still had a lot of blooming ahead of her.”

And then, of Nellie Coker’s middle daughters:

“Shirley and Betty…did most things together — they were ‘Irish twins,’ born in the same year, and although very different were also very alike, both possessing a preference for style over substance. (‘Substance,’ Shirley said, ‘led to the battlefield, style rarely so.’ ‘Perhaps a killing look,’ Betty said, pleased with herself. They considered themselves to be wits.)”

The novel is also richly strewn with marvelous stretches of description: a kitchen fire at one of Nellie’s clubs, a brawl and gunfire at another, Gwendolen’s visit to London’s primitive morgue, several muggings and murders, and the brutal strangling of Freda’s lookalike friend, among many, many others. It all makes for a captivating, crafty Jazz Age yarn that’s not to be missed. Shrines of Gaiety is one of the year’s best.

Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and reviewer.

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