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.
I’ve adored Kate Atkinson’s writing ever since I first read Case Histories for an undergraduate crime fiction module at university, so I absolutely leapt at the chance to be part of the blog tour for her latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety. And let me tell you right now that it did not disappoint!
Set in 1926, Shrines of Gaiety, follows Nellie, ambitious matriarch of the notorious Coker family, ruthless owner of several of London’s hottest clubs, and perpetual fly in the ointment for Detective Chief Inspector Frobisher. Nellie might have done her time for one criminal enterprise, but Frobisher suspects she has fingers in many more pies – and that at least one of his colleagues on the force is helping her to avoid further prosecution.
Nellie, meanwhile, has problems of her own. During her time in prison, her six children have got far too used to enjoying the glitz and glamour of the Coker’s club empire without her at the helm. And that’s before she has to think about the spy in her midst, the crooked cop with sights on her fortune, two missing teenage girls, a ghost from her past, and the persistent dogged presence of Detective Chief Inspector Frobisher.
Shrines of Gaiety is a layered narrative, alternating between several perspectives and storylines to immerse the reader in the vibrant world of 1920s London. At first, the frequent changes in perspective and the large cast of characters felt somewhat overwhelming but Atkinson’s command over her narrative, and her ability to create distinct voices for each character, meant that I never lost track of who was who. And whilst it did take quite a while for the various plot strands to weave together, I was enjoying each piece of the jigsaw so much that I didn’t mind not being able to see the full picture from the outset!
I also really loved the way in which Atkinson has portrayed 1920s London. On one hand, there is the glitz of the resurgent post-war nightlife scene. Beneath that, however, there is the seedy underbelly: the dance hostesses who accidentally overdose, the gangsters trying to muscle in on each other’s turf, the bodies being quietly (and not-so-quietly) rolled into the Thames, and the teenage runaways seeking stardom but at risk of getting sucked into less salubrious line of work. As Atkinson makes clear, there’s a lot of grime beneath all that glamour. And whilst it is clear that Atkinson has done her usual meticulous level of historical research, the novel wears its learning lightly and never becomes over-burdened as a result.
Despite this, I found myself rooting for Nellie and her clan whilst, at the same time, also rooting for Frobisher in his quest to bring her empire to an end! Even though the moral compass of many of the characters is heavily skewed, they remain relatable products of both their lives and of the times in which they live. The sharp and witty dialogue, peppered liberally with dashes of dark humour, meant that each character really came to life, and it was impossible not to be drawn into their world and their stories. With murder, mystery, and romance all on menu, there really is something for everyone in this richly textured read!
Alternating between the lighter and darker sides of 1920s London, Shrines of Gaiety is a wonderfully evocative novel that, given a little time and patience, will utterly immerse you into its world. Combining a dash of The Great Gatsby with a good dose of Peaky Blinders and a side of Boardwalk Empire, this beautifully written and richly detailed read is perfect for historical fiction fans to curl up on the sofa and while away a weekend with this autumn.
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is published by Doubleday UK/Transworld on 27 September 2022 and is available to order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Bookshop.org.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18 October 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!
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