With high expectations I started reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel. After all, I had enjoyed so many of her books: Life After Life, Transcription, and had others on my to read list. But, Shrines of Gaity was different; I had to restart it twice to get all the characters straight in my head. Yes, it was worth it. Once I became ensconced in the underground world of post Edwardian London, there was no turning back.
Nellie Coker, the inimitable fulcrum of action, is modeled on the 1920s maven Kate Meyrick, a feisty Queen Victoria of the nightclubs with enough adult children to manage her empire of five clubs. But being a romantic, I was drawn to her son, Niven, the smooth handsome gangster and his love interest, Gwendolyn, the librarian and former combat nurse from York who has come to the big city in search of her friend’s two erstwhile teenagers, Freda and Florence, who left home to become famous on the London stage, and have not been heard from since.
Adding to a love triangle is Chief Inspector Frobisher, new to his job and determined to clean up the omnipresent crime and corruption, including the shady policemen on his staff. One, Maddox, has been Nellie Coker’s “protection” for years, and proves his perfidy early in the story. When Atkinson gives him his due, it’s hard not to cheer. Frobisher is attracted to Gwen and hires her as an undercover agent to watch Nellie, while he promises to look for the young girls. Alas, he is married – but not happily, of course. Nellie, knowing all, also hires Gwen to manage one of her clubs.
The complex plot cleverly entwines the disappeared girls, Nellie’s scheming, and Gwen’s adventurous pursuit, with the hedonism and underworld crime of the era. Atkinson neatly ties up all the lives in the end, leaving some dangling for the reader to decide. A fun read – worth trying to keep all the characters straight – maybe read it with a notebook nearby to jot them down.
For more Kate Atkinson: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2013/05/01/life-after-live-a-novel/