Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is a sparkling portrayal of London in the 1920s, a heady mixture of madly-themed nightclubs, teenage runaways and the Bright Young Things. It is 1926 and the generation most damaged by the War to End All Wars is dancing to forget. But 1920s London is not as glittering it seems. Though the nightclubs sparkle by night, they are dank and dowdy in daylight. London has a dark, dangerous underbelly. When veteran gangland boss Ma Coker is released from Holloway prison, a train of events is set in place. Her six children jostle for her attention, approval and power. The police at Bow Street station are either in her pay or are trying to convict her. Meanwhile, others are plotting the takeover of her rich kingdom – the five nightclubs the Amethyst, the Sphinx, the Crystal Cup, the Pixie and the Foxhole. Each is carefully targetted at specific clientele, each is managed by one of her five eldest children. The Amethyst is the jewel in the crown but Nellie, post-prison, is acting oddly and has taken to sitting alone in the immaculate, unoccupied, pink-decorated flat above the Cup. Is she losing it?
Two young women arrive in the closed world of the Coker family and will change things forever. Fourteen-year-old Freda Murgatroyd has run away from York with her bovine friend Florence, desperate to dance on the stage in London. Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian and also from York, follows them to London with the aim of returning them to their families. Though Gwendolen’s tweed skirt and plain cardigan may suggest timidity, she is not what she seems.
What a wonderful read this is, this hybrid part-historical, part-literary, part-mystery novel. Atkinson juggles a huge cast and given this it takes a while to settle into the story, but as the pages turn the parties become more hysterical and people begin to die. There are three main viewpoints – Nellie Coker, Gwendolen and Freda – supplemented by Inspector John Frobisher and Nellie’s three eldest children Edith, Niven and Ramsay. But always Atkinson reminds us of the dark side. The Bright Young Things dazzle at the beginning of the evening in beautiful extravagant costumes, but their syringes and drugs become visible at twilight. Meanwhile, Nellie seems to be losing her iron grip on the clubs. When Gwendolen is recruited by Frobisher to visit the Amethyst undercover one night, with a policeman as her dance partner, things spin out of control. There is no sign of Flora or Florence, Gwendolen’s dance partner disappears, a fight breaks out and her beautiful dress from Liberty is covered in blood. The identity of her saviour is unexpected.
The story has been described as Dickensian and I can see why. Atkinson never wastes a sentence and, with a sure hand, she directs this complicated plot full of richly-drawn characters, criminal gangs, two-faced policemen and blotto partygoers. The historical detail stretches from the richest to the poorest, plus there’s a touch of romance and plenty of wry and witty anecdotes to make you chuckle. Some of the minor characters are classics to delight in, particularly Vanda and Duncan aka The Knits.
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