There’s an old story about the time Kate Atkinson took home her first major literary award, then known as the Whitbread Prize and now called the Costa, for her bravura 1995 debut, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum.” Even in the midst of bestowing it, the committee’s chairman, an august academic named Richard Hoggart, felt compelled to say that he doubted that Atkinson knew she had written a postmodern novel.
His implication wasn’t hard to parse: This 40-something single mother, the product of a Scottish public university with several odd jobs on her résumé (hotel chambermaid, legal secretary), could not possibly have bested the likes of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis deliberately, but only via some accidental whimsy — as if she were a talking dog, or a chicken trained to play tick-tack-toe.
In fact Atkinson went on to win two more Costas and, with or without her own implicit knowledge, produce many kinds of novels, including the heady 2004 detective mystery “Case Histories” and the dizzying magic-realism feat of 2013’s “Life After Life.” Now she’s gone and written a rather Dickensian one, “Shrines of Gaiety,” a sprawling picaresque set in the shellshocked aftermath of World War I London but filigreed with the outsize characters and improbable coincidences of a Victorian serial.
A cast list of this teeming tapestry up front might have been helpful, though at least one figure may be familiar to some readers; Atkinson notes in the afterword that her nightlife maven Nellie Coker was inspired by the famed 1920s club impresario Kate Meyrick, already immortalized as Ma Mayfield in “Brideshead Revisited.” A middle-aged turnip of mysterious provenance, Nellie has molded herself through sheer will and ruthlessness — is there ever any ruth, when it comes to this kind? — into the queen of Soho’s demimonde, supplying all manner of nocturnal pleasures to the government ministers, movie stars and Bright Young Things who can afford her entrance fees.
The sun rarely sets on the Coker empire’s five clubs, jazzy dens of iniquity with names like the Pixie, the Foxhole and the Crystal Cup, each one offering its own brand of high-end vice and exotic décor. Because Nellie cannot be everywhere at once, and because she trusts no one, each spot is run with the help (and frequently, hindrance) of her five offspring: the eldest son, Niven, a cagey combat veteran; clever but physically unlovely Edith; the feral, giggling beauties Betty and Shirley; young Ramsay, a sexually confused dope fiend with mislaid dreams of literary stardom; and the runt of the litter, Kitty, an unloved afterthought.
Their daily movements, legal and otherwise, are duly noted by a diligent police inspector in the vein of Jackson Brodie in “Case Histories,” a somber straight arrow named John Frobisher. And the good detective’s barren home life — he’s married to a pretty French war widow (“or Belgian, she seemed unsure”) so emptied out by grief that she’s more like a sad hologram than a wife — leaves him ample time to pursue his workplace obsessions.
Enter Gwendolen Kelling, a spirited spinster of not yet 30 whose time in the trenches as a combat nurse seemed to suit her far more than her current job as a librarian in York, slowly turning to dust and sherry amid the stacks. Reprieve comes in the form of her old friend Cissy, a harried young mother who entreats her to go down to the big city and find out what happened to her 14-year-old half sister, Freda, a glimmering slip of a girl whose stage ambitions — and the wandering ham-hock hands of her mother’s latest lover — have compelled her to London to try her luck.
What Freda finds there, of course, is not a series of golden doors swinging open to greet her but a Gomorrah rife with trickery and mayhem, a city that eats naïfs for breakfast and more often than not surrenders their bodies to the endless appetites of men — or if they’re particularly unlucky, the bottom of the Thames. It’s an old tale Frobisher has rarely seen end well, but Gwendolen’s charms are sufficient enough to engage him in the search, and her aims turn out to dovetail with his pursuit of the Cokers in ways that only a certain tidy brand of fiction can engineer.
Atkinson vividly conjures the post-Great War London of a century ago, a vast stinking metropolis still teetering between the old world and the new. It’s also a place so bent on burying its mass trauma in a sort of collective, hectic hedonism that one character wonders whether they weren’t “following some instinctive compulsion to restock the human race. Like frogs.”
At the same time, “Shrines” tends to reduce a city of millions to the neatly sealed aperture of its two dozen or so players, many of whom meet in back alleys and grand townhomes alike with improbable frequency. Stood beside her previous novels, the book can seem like a minor work in a catalog already stacked with greatest hits; a kind of fond genre exercise the author has undertaken simply because she can. Even her descriptions of sex and transgression, the orgies and dead girls and opium dens, remain reassuringly bright, almost cozy.
That tangible warmth suffuses her storytelling, a quality that perhaps Hoggart, the sniffy critic, mistook for some kind of mental deficiency. For all its dips into sentiment and cliché — Atkinson has a weakness for wordplay and extended nautical metaphors — she remains a keenly sympathetic observer of human foibles, one who can sketch a character in one quicksilver sentence. (A daughter of Nellie’s is “very hard-nosed yet occasionally mawkishly sentimental, a combination shared with her mother and many dictators both before and since.”)
“Shrines” doesn’t surprise in the thrilling sui generis way of “Behind the Scenes” or “Life After Life”; no thunderclap revelations à la “Case Histories” arrive in the flurry of postscripts and ever-afters that make up its final pages. It lands instead as light refreshment; a cocktail of fizz and melancholy, generously poured.
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