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.
The notorious queen of this glittering world is 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.
Whenever I see a new Kate Atkinson novel, I know it will be one I’ll find myself completely immersed in, and Shrines of Gaiety is no exception. Set in London in the 1920s – an era and location I always love reading about – the novel follows an array of characters (many of which are women). There’s gangster family matriarch Nellie ‘Ma’ Coker and her six children; librarian Gwendolen Kelling who is searching for two runaway girls; Freda and Florence, the two teenagers who Gweondolen is looking for, both of whom best friends lured away from their hometown by the bright lights of London; and Detective Frobisher, who is investigating the crimes and dodgy dealings of the Coker family.
It’s quite a cast to keep track of, and at the start of the novel, I admit I found it tricky at times to remember who was who but that soon became easier. Each person felt like a real, well-rounded character with their own quirks and flaws. I loved reading about them all, and slowly unravelling how exactly they might be connected to one another. It’s particularly interesting to read about Nellie Coker, as I haven’t really read any other novels set during this period which focus on female gangsters, and certainly not of Nellie’s age!
London feels like its own character in this book – you can’t help but become immersed in this fantastic city’s grit, grime and simultaneous wonder during such a tumultuous time. There’s plenty going on but the pace manages to avoid feeling too rushed. For me, the writing, characters, setting and content make it a hugely enjoyable piece of historical fiction. Kate Atkinson never lets me down!
My rating: 4/5
Many thanks to the publisher, Doubleday, for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest review.