Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety is a change of pace. Set in 1920s London, the novel opens with the release from Holloway of Nellie Coker, “Old Ma Coker,” a middle-aged woman who presides over an empire of London nightclubs. It’s taken a lot of hard living for Nellie to climb to the top of this world, and it takes even more to stay on top.
Nellie’s brood of children feed off the empire in various ways. She has 5 total: Niven, Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay and Kitty. The “three eldest girls were the crack troops of the family,” with Edith her mother’s “second-in-command.” Edith “understood business and had the Borgia stomach necessary for it.” Nellie’s eldest son, Niven, was conscripted into the army, and survived. Stepping outside of the family, he is now part owner of a car dealership and has various other business interests. With a German Shepherd as his constant companion, Niven is an “enigma” to his family. The youngest son Ramsey feels he’s left out of the family inner circle and is “continually beset by the feeling that he had just missed something. ‘As if,’ he struggled to explain to Shirley, his usual confidante, ‘I’ve walked into a room but everyone else just left it.‘”
One day, Niven assists Gwendolen, a young woman new to London who is mugged on the street. She gets a job managing one of Nellie’s clubs, the Crystal Club, but Gwendolen is a woman on a mission. She’s in London to discover the whereabouts of her best friend’s sister, Freda, who ran away to London with dreams of being a dancer. Gwendolen has connected with Inspector Frobisher to work undercover. The delinquent Coker empire is a house of cards that Frobisher aims to topple.
The filthy, glittering underbelly of London was concentrated in its nightclubs, and particularly the Amethyst, the gaudy jewel at the heart of Soho’s nightlife. It was not the moral delinquency–the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs–that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least 5 he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks. Where did they go? He suspected that they went through the doors of the Soho clubs and never came out again.
Shrines of Gaiety presents a giddy, tawdry world of 1920s London. Post WWI society craves fun, and dour Nellie Coker, a woman who doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word, is there to provide it for those who can pay.
We get Nellie’s hard-scrabble back history which goes a long way to explaining the woman she has become. Atkinson based the tale on the real-life Kate Meyrick “The Nightclub Queen.” The novel introduces a lot of characters right away and the novel is best read in large chunks in order to keep the juggling points of multi plot and time lines in the air. The novel’s strength is in its recreation of the times and the atmosphere. And while there are a dizzying number of characters, the novel doesn’t do a deep dive on character but instead the narrative remains on the surface of life: light, dense and expository.