How might the lives of a nightlife entrepreneur, a no-nonsense librarian, a stage-struck teenager, and a well-intentioned (if sometimes obtuse) detective converge? Quite easily, in the capable — or should it be culpable? — hands of Kate Atkinson. “Shrines of Gaiety,” Atkinson’s latest fictional treat, draws from the real-life adventures of London nightclub maven Kate Meyrick, who ruled Soho’s clubland roost in 1920s London. With its myriad characters embracing a postwar world in which the pursuit of fun, frivolities, and other methods of dulling wartime experiences reigns supreme, the book is a bit like one of Meyrick’s club nights come to vibrant life. It’s part-glitz, part-sleaze, packed with intrigue and avid partygoers, all taking place in spaces where policemen, gangsters, bouncers, and dancing girls rub shoulders with ease — when they’re not actually rubbing each other out.
That party-fever tone is set in the opening pages as toffs and end-times evangelists alike — “Half of the throng were up early, the other half seemed not to have been to bed yet” — gather to cheer and jeer Nellie Coker, nightclub owner and wily entrepreneur, on her release from prison for breaching licensing laws. Also present is Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher, with his focus on the Coker clubland scene: “It was not the moral delinquency — the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs — that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least five he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks. Where did they go? He suspected that they went in through the doors of the Soho clubs and never came out again.” Frobisher’s secret weapon may be Gwendolen Kelling, an astute young woman from Yorkshire, who is trying to find her friend’s sister, a recent runaway with purple-prose-filled dreams of treading London’s stages. To Frobisher’s delight — and sometimes to his dismay — Gwendolen agrees to go undercover, in a bid to infiltrate Nellie’s nightclub circuit.
But Nellie is no fool. (In fact, most of the women in this book are resilient, against-all-odds survivors). She arrived in London with nothing but her children, discovering a serendipitous investment opportunity when her landlady dies. Nellie is a quintessential pragmatic; profusely unsentimental, she “supposed she should come to terms with the concept of ‘fun.’ She didn’t want any for herself but she was more than happy to provide it for others, for a sum. There was nothing wrong with having a good time as long as she didn’t have to have one herself.”
Now those children are grown, involved to one extent or another in the family business. There’s Nellie’s oldest son, Niven, a sharpshooter during the war, with fingers in lots of pies; Edith, “in whose veins Coker blood ran in a fast and furious torrent. … Money was the thing…“; and the interchangeable and entertaining middle sisters, Betty and Shirley: “Nellie had insisted on educating them to within an inch of their lives. After their expensive private school they had gone up to Cambridge together, cutting a powerful swathe through Girton College. They had both been icons — for their sporty little cars, their couture clothing, their coiffed hair. … Their fellow students begged to do them favours, run errands, sit at their feet in front of their coal fire, toasting crumpets on a brass fork for them. And that was just the girls.” Finally, there’s Ramsay, a would-be writer with the worst writer’s block, and Kitty, perhaps the most observant sibling. But there may be trouble brewing in clubland paradise, for it appears that a dastardly someone is keen to depose Nellie and abscond with her empire.
Gangster-fueled plotlines aside, Atkinson’s tapestry of 1920s London glitters with time-specific tidbits: Gwendolen shops at Liberty’s; characters ride around in a panoply of cool cars — Bentleys, Austins, Hispano-Suizas — dine on salad in aspic and sherry trifle, and imbibe fantastic-sounding cocktails. There’s a fun reference to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” another to Agatha Christie, and that’s all on top of evocative set pieces of the dancing, cavorting, and frolicking that mark Soho nightlife.
Try as they might, no one evades war’s path of destruction. Armistice looms large in many imaginations: It was at that time that Frobisher rescued the woman who became his wife; it was also the night a dance hostess overdosed in one of Nellie’s clubs, and her ghost, dripping from a likely riverbed grave, haunts Nellie, a telling detail of a nagging conscience that she prefers to obscure. Gwendolen, a wartime nurse, can’t stand memorials: “The truth of the battlefield was absent — the mud, the globs of bloody flesh, the scattered bodiless limbs and limbless bodies. The rendering of suffering into cold stone could not convey the horror.” Or, as she tells Frobisher, “I nursed throughout the war, Chief Inspector, I doubt there is anything left on earth that could shock me any more.” If Nellie is the beating heart of this rollicking, glorious book, Gwendolen — clear-eyed, curious, and compassionate — is its soul.
Despite the tale’s harsh realities, one can never underestimate the pleasurable power of Atkinson’s ability to stud her narrative with humor, even when only a minor character’s backstory such as that of a barman: “He had trained at the Ritz before losing his post there due to an unfortunate incident involving two chambermaids and a linen cupboard. ‘You can imagine the rest,’ he said to Nellie when he applied for the job at the Amethyst. ‘I’d rather not,’ she said.”
SHRINES OF GAIETY
By Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 416 pages, $29
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.