Random House UK| 27 September 2022| 440 pages| e-book Review Copy| 2.5*
Synopsis from Amazon
1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.
At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.
With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.
Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite authors, so I was expecting to enjoy Shrines of Gaiety. But it took me a while to settle into this book and for quite a while I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to carry on reading. But I persevered and finished it, because I wanted to find out what happened.
The novel begins just before the General Strike in May 1926. What I liked about it is that it does give a good idea of life in the 1920s, the atmosphere and attitudes after the First World War. There’s the nightlife, the new nightclubs, gangsters, corrupt police, and missing girls, drugs, drinking, crime and murder. The ‘dark belly’ of Soho’s underworld was very dark indeed and the gaiety superficial.
However, my problem with it was I found it confusing, with several plot lines and lots of characters, in lots of different locations, and at different times, and the narration jumps around between all of them. I had to keep backtracking to work out who was who and how they interacted. It was hard work! And some of it was boring, with quite a lot of padding, making the book as a whole far too long. It’s a sprawling story that could probably have been better spread between two or even three books.
In her Author’s Note Atkinson explains that inspiration for her novel came from the life and times of Kate Meyrick, who for many years was the queen of Soho’s clubland. Many of the details for the novel are taken from her autobiography, Secrets of the 43 Club and Atkinson also cites Barbara Cartland’s autobiography, We Danced All Night and several other works as sources for the novel. But although based on fact and including real people this is very much a work of fiction and she lists several details that she has invented.
Shrines of Gaiety has all the ingredients I love in a novel, but for me it didn’t hold my interest. Sometimes timing is everything and this may be just a case of the wrong book at the wrong time for me.
My thanks to Random House for an ARC via NetGalley.