‘There’s a lot happening in this novel – cliffhangers and comedy, drugs, dancers, double-crosses, maybe murderers too – and it happens at a frenzied pace.’
Shrines of Gaiety
By Kate Atkinson
Published by Doubleday
‘“Is it a hanging?” an eager newspaper delivery boy asked no-one in particular.’ That’s the first sentence of Kate Atkinson’s new novel Shrines of Gaiety, and already the hook is in. (Do you want to read on? Of course you do.) No, it isn’t a hanging, but that’s a reasonable question all the same, what with the crowd of drunken toffs outside Holloway so early in the morning, the press photographers waiting expectantly, demonstrators already there with their placards, and the police keeping an eye on everything in the background. And of course, what with it also being 1926, when the gallows in England’s only female-only prison were still in occasional use.
If you want to know why Atkinson is such readable writer, you could do worse than look in depth at that opening scene. In just five pages, she not only introduces its central character – notorious Soho nightclub owner Nellie ‘Ma’ Coker, who is being released from prison that day – but five of her six grown-up children. On top of that, the novel sets up a secret mission: a police chief inspector has summoned an undercover agent to the scene who’ll be able to recognise Coker and her children in the future. That’s eight key characters we’ve met for the first time, each differentiated with either dialogue or description, and yet – and this is Atkinson’s real skill – so subtly that you hardly notice it.
Think about it. If you (I presume) or I attempted such a thing, by character No 3, the reader might already be tiring of so many introductions. Instead, we see the scene through the newspaper boy’s eyes as he shoves his way through the crowd towards the gates. They’re quite imposing. How high are they? ‘If there had been three of the boy, each standing on the shoulders of the one below, like the Chinese acrobats he had seen at the Hippodrome, then the one at the peak might have just reached the arched apex of the doors.’ Exactly. And right there you have one of the reasons I love reading Kate Atkinson: her prose is so rich that a description of one thing invariably becomes a description of two or three others.
So when Holloway’s gates open and a woman comes out and the crowd cheers, the newspaper boy can’t understand why some of them are shouting ‘Jezebel!’ at her. This woman is dwarfed by bouquets but is so old that she doesn’t look like anything that the boy has heard of Jezebels. The girls surrounding Ma Coker – daughters, we’ll soon find out – remind him of the dancers he’s seen at matinees in a nearby theatre, where the doorman, ‘a cheerful veteran of the Somme’ let him in for free. All the time, details roll into Atkinson’s prose at just the right moment, the focus becoming clearer with each one, the vignette moving from two dimensions to a solid, load-bearing three. We won’t need the newspaper boy again, apart from a sentence right at the end, but he’s served his purpose. He can go.
Introductions over, we are soon in the middle of what is, in the words of the title of the novel being written by Ma Coker’s youngest son Ramsay (think Roman Roy in Succession), The Age of Glitter. This is the frenetic world Evelyn Waugh would conjure up in Vile Bodies, where the Bright Young Things pursued a frenetic round of heavy drinking, party-going and promiscuity. If you didn’t think Baldwin’s Britain did Bohemia, look again at the clubs Ma Coker ran – at The Pixie, where you might come across Tallulah Bankhead or the King of Denmark; or The Amethyst, where the Aga Khan was a regular, where dance hostesses could earn £80 in a good week and where profits, piling up at more than £1000 a week, were ‘better than a goldmine’.
For all that, Ma Coker – modelled, apparently, on Kate Meyrick, the Irish queen of Soho clubland in the 1920s – has to contend with the attentions of the police. The good cops, led by Chief Inspector Frobisher, want to close her down and ask a York librarian, in town to check on the whereabouts of two local girls, to help them infiltrate The Amethyst and report on any racketeering and prostitution she finds there. The bad cops don’t mind turning a blind eye in exchange for backhanders, and some of them even have club management ambitions of their own. So, too, do the London crime syndicates.
All I need to say about the plot is that at some stage almost all of these characters will either rub each other up the right way (romance) or the wrong way (violence) and very occasionally both. Those two girls from York seeking their fortune on the paved-with-gold streets of London crash through the intricate plot like fairground workers on the waltzers, giving it a spin as they go. Will they end up on the mortuary slab like so many girls down from the provinces seem to be doing that year? Or will they become demimondaines or drug-dealers, private dancers or police informers, lovers or losers? Atkinson’s plot is so entertainingly baroque most of these possibilities remain wide open for most of the novel.
Frankly, I don’t read Kate Atkinson for plot. It’s there all right, and it’s thought-out and full of enough twists to keep the reader turning the pages. But most of us KA fans would probably keep turning those pages anyway. Or at least I would.
Why? I think it boils down how effectively she sets her scenes. Her descriptions are both concentrated and loose. Let’s start out with concentrated. Here’s how she describes Ma Coker’s second-eldest daughter: ‘Betty was hard-nosed and occasionally mawkishly sentimental, a combination shared with her mother and many dictators both before and since’. See what I mean? It’s what I was trying to say about that opening chapter: she invariably illuminates more than merely the subject supposedly in focus.
What about loose? I like this about Atkinson’s writing even more. Here’s Gwendolen, the York librarian, out shopping in Regent Street. She passes a blind cornettist playing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ (‘Do we, Gwendolen wondered. She had lost any religion she might have once had’) and she starts remembering how the soldiers used to sing ‘when this bloody war is over’ to the hymn’s tune and how she’d hear them singing it when she was a nurse on the Western Front, and how they’d apologise and say ‘Sorry Sister’ and how embarrassed they were when, in extremis, they’d swear in front of her.
What I’ve described in a paragraph takes up over a page in the text (Page 85), and it absolutely deserves to. But you can see how clearly one thought flows from the next, and also note how the whole thing starts: those parentheses in which a character thinks out loud are an Atkinson trademark, and there’s one on most pages. Gwendolen’s musings in Regent Street spiral, quite naturally and completely credibly, down towards death and loss, but Atkinson has a wonderful ability to follow her character’s thoughts in the opposite direction. The scene in which Ramsay, having just finished The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, decides to write a crime novel of his own is a typically hilarious example.
There’s a lot happening in this novel – cliffhangers and comedy, drugs, dancers, double-crosses, maybe murderers too – and it happens at a frenzied pace. The plot is like the dance floor of The Amethyst, crowded and showy and sparkling, and, at the same time, edged with darkness and crime. Bringing all of that to life would be beyond most writers, but the way Atkinson handles her material is not only entertaining but shimmers and shimmies with style.
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is by Doubleday, priced £20.
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