English author, Kate Atkinson, has crafted a complex and engaging historical novel in Shrines of Gaiety that brings together a myriad of characters and their intertwined narratives. Set in 1926 in London, the story opens with the newsworthy release of Nellie Coker from prison; mother to six children and proprietor of a string of popular Soho nightclubs, most notably the Amethyst. Nellie has worked hard and been ruthless in her efforts to build an empire for herself and her children, and she is determined to protect what is hers, by any means necessary. Her movements are watched very closely by Chief Inspector John Frobisher who is determined to topple the corrupt Coker family.
The delinquent Coker empire was a house of cards that Frobisher aimed 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.
Frobisher is joined in his undertaking by the earnest and capable Gwendolen Kelling, former nurse in the Great War and now librarian who has her own agenda – tracking down two missing girls, Freda and Florence, who have run away from home to seek fame and fortune on stage in the West End but have likely been lost to the dissolute Soho club scene. Atkinson intricately paints the world of 1920s London as corrupt and sinister plagued with missing girls, criminal enterprises and crooked policemen.
One of the chief pleasures of reading Shrines of Gaiety is Atkinson’s in-depth exploration of her characters’ lives as they navigate the post-war era. While the Roaring Twenties is known as a time of prosperity and optimism, epitomised through the determination of many to have a good time on the club scene, Atkinson’s characters still feel the weight of war and cannot entirely escape the stain it has left on them. Frobisher finds himself in a failing marriage having nobly rescued the beautiful and grief-stricken Lottie on the eve of Armistice as she attempted to end her life, whisking her back to England for a fresh start that never eventuated. Gwendolen retains dark memories of nursing wounded young boys facing long and agonising deaths while Nellie’s eldest son, Niven, a sharpshooter on the Western front, has returned home a cynical and aloof young man who surprisingly finds himself taken with Gwendolen Kelling. Even hardhearted matriarch Nellie Coker is haunted by the ghosts of her past, providing an element of softness and humanity to a character who might otherwise be despised by the reader.
He no longer had the patience for people’s foibles. No patience for people at all…Niven’s heart appeared adamantine, fired in the crucible of war.
Atkinson can have fun with her characters though. Most notably through her depiction of Nellie Coker’s youngest son, Ramsay, who is disinterested in fulfilling his role in the family business and more focused on literary stardom. Ramsay sets about creating a gritty murder mystery to rival the recently released The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. However, his efforts are chiefly mundane despite his own positive appraisals of his talents. By making fun of Ramsay’s efforts, one can’t help but wonder if Atkinson is making her own point to those who think that great writing can so easily be replicated purely by formula and trope. While many of Atkinson’s characters carry the heavy weight of their war experience, Ramsay, too young to have joined the war effort, is conversely keenly aware of having missed out on something and he appears to feel inadequate as a result.
Only ten days after starting his magnum opus he could feel his creativity dimming, coming in fits and starts with interminable longueurs in between. He felt overcome by ennui. Did people really do this for a living? Every day?
Atkinson’s research on the era is meticulous, drawing inspiration from real-life ‘Night Club Queen’ Kate Meyrick who faced several prison sentences for flouting licensing laws in her establishments. Other macabre historical details make it into the narrative, including London’s infamous Dead Man’s Hole under the Tower Bridge where a morgue once existed, and bodies floating along the Thames were regularly recovered. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are a multitude of references to popular plays and novels of the day, contributing to the historical backdrop.
However, I can’t help but feel that after over 400 pages of gradually developing the stories of these characters, it all ended rather abruptly. While Atkinson does tie up the stories of each of the characters, as a reader I did not feel entirely satisfied. Ultimately though, Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety is an immensely enjoyable read.