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.
At the heart of this glittering world is notorious 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.
With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.
Replete with fascinating characters, Atkinson’s wit and humanity shines as she peels apart the sordid vapidity of the interwar Jazz Age and Bright Young Things – this delight is, by turns, tender, delicate and wonderfully satirical.
What I Liked
- The characters: Gwendolene Kelling and Nellie Coker stood out
- Frobisher was a delicately depicted character, noble and tragic in a wonderfully understated way
- The clubs, both their glittering glamour and their seedy background
What Could Have Been Different
- More time spent with each character before the point of view changes
- The conclusion seemed a little rushed and abrupt, and a rather self conscious wrapping up of loose ends…
Kate Atkinson is without doubt one of my favourite authors – and this is where I usually trot out my anecdote about being put of reading her because my mum had a wet, swollen, mouldy copy of Behind the Scenes of the British Museum which she kept on the side of the bath… But since reading Life after Life and its follow up A God in Ruins, the wonderful Transcription and the Jackson Brodie series
Atkinson has become a staple in my reading diet. She is not a light read – deeply literate and literary with a depth and humanity to her flawed characters – and I have always tended to leave time to ruminate and digest one before embarking on the next, but her writing and characterisation are just sublime.
With this novel, we are heading into the interbellum years, 1926 to be precise, a brittle and fragile time where the country – the world – was struggling to respond to the effects of war, clinging to antiquated values, challenged by the rise of power in women and the working classes, some Bright Young Things revelling in excess whilst others fell between the cracks of society. In this novel, this is the world of Nellie Coker, owner of a string of bars and clubs in London – funded by somewhat shadily acquired wealth, playing fast-and-loose with the licensing laws of the time, hosting the great and the good in society as well as the local gangs and thugs – and matriarch of an extended family.
Within this world, Nellie’s security is threatened by a range of antagonists: by Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher, whose mission is to bring her down; by the corrupt Sergeants Maddox and Oakes who, after years of collusion with Coker, have decided to usurp her; by the mysterious figure of Azzopardi, a figure from Nellie’s shadowy past. The vagaries of her children – the somewhat enigmatic Niven, the pragmatic Edith, the over-educated Betty and Shirley who always seemed to come as a pair, the romantic and malcontent Ramsey and the fey Kitty – present their own challenges and threats to the Coker empire.
Alongside this, two teenage girls – Freda and Florence – have run away from home, lured by the thrills and opportunities of London and the chance to make it in the theatre. Gwendolene Kelling, librarian and Freda’s sister’s friend and beneficiary of an unexpected windfall and a wonderful, exuberant energy, is dispatched to London to try to find them.
For me Gwendolene is the heart of the novel: her quest to find the missing girls – a plot that would have fitted into a Jackson Brodie story – led her to Frobisher and through him to the Cokers because where else might two innocent naive lost girls have ended up but as a ‘hostess’ in on the clubs. She is a force of nature, sweeping her way into the thick of things and batting away anyone else’s expectations:
.. an impatient Frobisher said “I’m going in. I have an itch to arrest him today.”
“I am coming in with you.”
She did, of course.
That “of course” is so delicious! So playful! And, as so many reviews are saying, so very Dickensian – Marley was dead: to begin with.
Atkinson is wonderful at creating an interiority in her characters too, undercutting the narration with single lines of dialogue or parentheses which punctuate it and undermine the facade and face put on by the characters:
Vanda had ‘lost her man’ early in the war. Freda thought he must have been killed in battle, but Duncan said he’d run off to Barnsley with a barmaid. “Alliterative adultery,” he said.
“Big word,” Vanda said.
“Which one?” Duncan said.
Amidst the disappearing girls and the occasional murder, the drug use and the corruption, Atkinson includes wonderfully satirical depictions of the excesses of the Bight Young Things and her depiction of the Baby Party – apparently an historical fact – was a wonderful set piece alongside the desperation of the “parties in Mayfair, orgies in Soho, cocktail parties in Knightsbridge, and bacchanalia of all kinds behind the closed doors of private houses.”
The cast of characters was extensive and, although each was exceptionally crafted, the opening chapters of the novel became a bit of a whirlwind as our point of view shifted sometimes rather quickly from one to another and it became a little confusing before everyone ‘settled’ – although that may say more about my mental acuity in the run up to Christmas than anything else! The ending, for me, also felt a little… rushed as we see a series of vignettes of what happens to the different characters in the years that followed the story.
All quibbles aside though, this was a delightful and delicious novel replete with Atkinson’s trademark style: humane, witty and