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Kate Atkinson’s Latest Brilliant Plot Takes Us Into Vanished World of the Past

Oct 06, 2023

Kate Atkinson stated in a 2019 interview with journalist Lisa Allardice in The Guardian, "I live to entertain. I don't live to teach or preach or to be political" and she has succeeded admirably in a steady stream of eagerly awaited, best-selling and award-winning novels.

You will want to set aside some quiet time for reading Shrines of Gaiety (Doubleday), her current beguiling work of fiction set in London in 1926. She has opened a doorway into the milieu of the first quarter of the 20th century with the authenticity of then-contemporary writers such as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Evelyn Waugh, and Edith Wharton who wrote eloquently about their generation.

London is roaring into recovery after the hardships, deprivations, lives lost and dreams shattered resulting from four years of WWI, the hopefully christened "war to end all wars". Affluent British are investing heavily in the booming American stock market and spending their get-rich-quick gains avidly pursuing pleasure in the bustling capital city.

London and New York are the entertainment centers with an astounding number of theaters dedicated to serious drama and comedy as well as music halls and cinemas catering to all tastes and income brackets.

It is the Jazz Age and cabarets, supper clubs and nightclubs from swank to lowdown, seedy, and quite literally, dark and dirty, abounded. Americans in search of legal alcohol and good times swelled the ranks of revelers. The venerable couture House of Worth transitioned from designing exquisite ball gowns to custom-made slim silhouetted flapper dresses whose cost easily exceeds the annual income of the average workman.

Beauties with chicly bobbed hair and these light-catching sparkly, appliqued and beaded gowns kick up their heels in the latest dance crazes such as the most popular Charleston and Black Bottom along with the Foxtrot and Shimmy. Ballroom dancing concurrently remained in style with combos, bands or at least a piano playing lively music in all venues.

King George V, grandson of Queen Victoria, and Queen Mary are the reigning monarchs. In 1917, the King Anglicized the family name from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. Great Britain had introduced some sweeping social reforms with a low minimum wage, mandatory education for all children, and women over the age of 30 had received the right to vote in 1918 (lowered to 21 a decade later.)

However, an enormous gap exists between the wealthy and privileged class and the poor who are intimately acquainted with the mean streets of London with its high crime, limited opportunities for employment, grimy, disease ridden, overcrowded housing and for whom eking out a meager living is a constant struggle.

Kate Atkinson has written a sensational novel about the nightlife, the habitués and the fictional owner of several London nightclubs, the titular Shrines of Gaiety that simultaneously attract revelers and repel reformers.

These pleasure palaces operate outside of legal boundaries, staying open all night until dawn, offering food, drink, music and beautiful hostesses who twirl the ballroom floor with patrons for a shilling a dance. It is at their discretion if other paid services are agreed upon.

Hedonistic, fun-seeking patrons including dignitaries, celebrities, daring debutantes, lords, ladies and gangsters who mingle freely as champagne and cocktails flow. Secluded private rooms exist for patrons’ private dining and/or indiscretions although not gambling as owner Nellie Coker disapproves of games of chance and cards. Outwitting the Metropolitan Police, paying fines and bribes to learn of planned raids and minimizing employee theft are all part of a club owner's headaches and routine management duties.

The complex, fascinating real life Kate Meyrick known as the "Night Club Queen" served as an inspiration for the fictional, ruthless Nellie Coker.

Meyrick owned a string of clubs during a 13 year period, served five prison sentences and finally got out of the business leaving a surprisingly small estate despite her evident popularity. Separated from her husband, she solely raised and educated her eight children in the finest private schools and universities. Three of her daughters married into nobility which she may have considered as her greatest legacy.

Shrines of Gaiety has a dense, sprawling plot with several storylines swirling around the fictional Soho nightclub owner Nellie Coker, several main characters and a multitude of secondary players that will hold the reader captive. (One might long for a return to the bygone custom of a helpful list of primary characters and their relationships to follow the dedication page.)

Nellie is an enigma whose true origins are not fully revealed to anyone including her progeny; two sons and four daughters who range in age from about 28 to le bébé who is 11. Nellie was educated in a convent school in Paris before returning to England to marry and bear firstborn Niven.

By the middle of The Great War, she is bereft of a husband and raising the five youngest alone in a squalid flat. Niven was conscripted into a Scottish regiment and wounded during the Battle of the Somme. Fortunes shifted when her landlady died of natural causes and Nellie cleaned out her cash and a battered tin box containing a fortune in gems and jewelry before the authorities were notified of the death.

Who would suspect the nice old landlady was a fence holding a thief's hoard? Prudent Nellie rapidly relocated the family to nicer lodgings and forever after lived in fear of the wrathful criminal who had lost his cache.

She quickly bought and sold a series of modest clubs and music halls to finance the purchase of her first and favorite nightclub which she renamed The Amethyst. It is the crown jewel in her empire of five nightclubs which included the Pixie, the Foxhole, the Sphinx and the Crystal Cup. Nellie has a corrupt policeman or two on her payroll and had generally been able to thwart law enforcement or at least get reduced sentences. She now has enemies within the force.

Rapacious copper Maddox takes her payoffs and continually puts on a show of eager benevolence while robbing, conniving and trafficking in young women in order to take over the five clubs.

Meanwhile, the incorruptible Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher has been loaned to the Bow Street Station to clean up some of the vice and corruption within the ranks. Frobisher is less concerned about violations of liquor laws, gambling or even drug sales, than about the recent disappearance of five young women from the district and bodies fished out from the Thames estuary.

Nellie is also feeling the heat from gangsters who are staging disturbances including gunfire in one of her clubs in a blatant attempt to intimidate her and seize control of her lucrative empire.

The seven deadly sins are thoroughly covered in Shrines of Gaiety as well as deceit, treachery, murder, duplicitousness and a myriad of others. The complex story lines are narrated from multiple points of view.

The line distinguishing between heroes and villains is fine and blurred at times and each reader will have favorites. No single character would be nominated for sainthood but the novel grabs the imagination as well as the heart and is one I highly recommend.

Book clubs would have plenty of "meat" for discussions and it would make a fine film or television series in the right hands. Kate Atkinson grabs your attention from the first page and leaves you wanting more. Bravo!

About Kate Atkinson:

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year Award with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her 2013 novel Life After Life, now a BBC TV series starring Thomasin McKenzie, won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize and the Costa Novel of the Year Award, was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, and was also voted Book of the Year by the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic.

A God in Ruins, also a winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award, is a companion to Life After Life, although the two can be read independently. Her five bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie — Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, Started Early, Took My Dog and Big Sky — became the BBC TV series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.

Kate Atkinson was awarded an MBE in the 2011 Queen's Birthday Honours List, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Visit the British Council's website for a full biography, bibliography, awards listing and critical perspective.

Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson