Over the past two decades, Kate Atkinson has written two kinds of novels: a very popular series of literary mysteries featuring a private detective named Jackson Brodie, and complex, often mournful historical novels about the war-scarred lives of 20th-century Britons. Which category does her latest, Shrines of Gaiety, fall into? The welcome answer is a bit of both. The novel is a wondrously intricate piece of narrative clockwork set in London eight years after World War I and centered around Nellie Coker, a notorious nightclub owner based on a real-life figure who also inspired a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. But it also features a surprisingly large number of corpses, and follows Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher as he sets out to solve an alarming uptick in young women fished out of the Thames at a spot called Dead Man’s Hole.
Nellie Coker operates a nightlife empire of five clubs, each with a particular theme and caliber of clientele, but most employing hostesses who can be hired to dance with patrons. (Just how much further they decide to take such arrangements seems to be no particular concern of Nellie’s, but when one of Atkinson’s characters takes a job at a club called the Amethyst, she makes enough money to steer clear of prostitution.) The novel opens in 1926 with a crowd gathered to greet the release of “Ma Coker” from Holloway prison, where she has finished serving a six-month sentence for violating liquor license laws. Some of those assembled hold up signs with scolding Bible verses about the wages of sin, but the better-dressed among them have come to cheer for a tabloid darling and den mother to the era’s giddy decadence.
London in the 1920s, and especially the shenanigans of the Bright Young Things—a group of socialites famous for their extravagant costume parties and excessive drinking—has provided fodder for dozens of novelists, including Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Anthony Powell, all of whom were counted among the Bright Young Things themselves. In Shrines of Gaiety, everyone in town is talking about a bestselling book, later adapted for the stage, portraying this milieu: The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, a real novel now long forgotten. There’s also a character evidently based on Waugh, who despite fawning over the Bright Young Things in person, is at work on a book about how their brightness has become “tarnished.” This plan chagrins Nellie’s feckless son Ramsay, who fancies himself the writer best positioned to depict the intersection of the aristocracy and the underworld where his mother’s businesses flourish. That is, if he can manage to actually write.
Atkinson herself doesn’t have much use for the Bright Young Things. Ramsay plans to pen “a razor-sharp dissection of the various strata of society in the wake of the destruction of the war,” but the only strata that really interest his creator are the lower ones. The Jazz Age London of Shrines of Gaiety is nearly as merciless as Dickens’ Victorian metropolis and even more rife with crime and intrigue. Those without money can’t afford to let the delirium go to their heads. When it comes to fun, Nellie observes, she “didn’t want any for herself but she was more than happy to provide it for others, for a sum.” Not all of the novel’s characters are quite so dourly pragmatic, but apart from Inspector Frobisher, they make their livings off of other people’s good times.
Shrines of Gaiety takes a while to gel into the brisk, sardonic, absorbing sort of novel that Atkinson fans have come to expect, in part because Nellie really isn’t the main character. Opponents may marshal against her, ranging from an allegedly Maltese gangster to bent coppers to the incorruptible Frobisher, but Nellie herself remains essentially unchanging. She serves as the hub for a collection of fascinating spokes as the novel revolves among 15 different points of view, each chapter told from the perspective of a person connected to Nellie by blood or treasure.
The most engaging of these is Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian who comes London in search of two runaway teenage girls. She and Frobisher make a deal: He’ll help her find them, if she helps him infiltrate Nellie’s clubs. Competent, cool-headed, and witty, Gwendolen only ever escaped her controlling invalid mother by working as a battlefield nurse during the war. Now freshly liberated by her mother’s death, she finds that going undercover at a glamorous, disreputable nightclub appeals to her newly activated sense of adventure. Nellie may not have much use for fun, but Gwendolyn’s sense of it is infectious. The novel’s other candidate for main character is one of the runaway girls, Freda, who has longed for a career on the stage since she toured the provinces with a troupe of knitwear models as a child. Freda’s cherished memories of the esprit de corps of this tiny band of washed-up theatricals make for some of the novel’s funniest and tenderest scenes. Freda and her dim-witted bestie Florence seem like lambs headed for the slaughter when they arrive in the city, but as is often the case with Atkinson’s characters, Freda has a working-person’s diligence and determination undergirding her starry-eyed ambitions. She will not easily be chewed up or spit out.
The novel’s shift in point of view from character to character gives the reader an aerial perspective on the novel’s interlocking storylines. It’s irresistibly pleasurable to deduce the significance of certain cryptic objects—a single silver shoe, a bluebird broach, a metal box big enough to hold a human head—and to witness passing encounters between characters who don’t yet realize how important they’ll become to each other. Coincidence probably plays more of a role in the proceedings that is strictly credible, but cities do work that way, tossing the same people together again and again in the churn of money-making and revelry (which in Atkinson’s London are the same thing). With each of the multiple turns of the wheel, the overall pattern—including that string of murders bedeviling Frobisher—comes into keener and more satisfying focus.
Behind it all is the Great War. Any account of London in the 1920s is a story of the aftermath of trauma. Gwendolen lost two brothers to the front. Frobisher’s wife has been driven mad by the death in a bombing raid of her child by an earlier marriage. Even sickly Ramsay, who was too young to enlist, doesn’t feel “real” compared to his battle-tested older brother, Niven. Niven “had Passchendaele at his back to give credence to his simmering outrage,” Ramsay broods, “whereas Ramsay had only a Swiss sanitorium and a burning desire to be acknowledged on a wider stage. Or any stage at all.”
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The war is the defining experience for 1920s Londoners but, for some of them at least, it was also business as usual. “Old war wound,” the Maltese gangster tells Niven when the younger man notices a scar on his hand. Niven points out that the gangster wasn’t in the war, and he replies, “There’s more than one type of war, Mr. Coker.” This, for Atkinson, marks the difference between characters like Freda or Gwendolen and someone like Frobisher’s wife. Those who can’t accept that life is war, that struggle and loss are inevitable, either become utter “nincompoops” in their frenetic attempts at denial, like the Bright Young Things, or shadows of themselves, not really alive at all. This may sound like a grim message to embed in such a diverting novel, but the effect is instead heartening: Anything is survivable.
The result is not quite as resonant as 2013’s Life After Life, Atkinson’s masterpiece, a novel that rifles through the many alternate paths of a 20th-century woman’s fate like Nellie shuffling her fortune-telling Lenormand cards. But it also feels more momentous than the Jackson Brodie books, with their hero who drifts from mystery to mystery, unable to get a proper handle on his own destiny. Shrines of Gaiety does feature one brutally random act of chance reminiscent of the pivotal events that redirect the branching storylines of Life After Life. At heart, though, it’s a big, rewarding puzzle that casts a jaundiced eye at one of London’s historic heydays while slipping the reader a flask full of Jazz-Age thrills under the table.