Map of Blue Book Balloon

26 September 2022

#Review - Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Shrines of Gaiety
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday (Penguin Random House) 27 September 2022
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN(HB): 9780857526557

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Shrines of Gaiety via Netgalley to consider for review.

In Kate Atkinson's latest novel, set in Jazz Age London on the eve of the General Strike, death comes frequently and often with little sense and little meaning. The Great War may be over but that sense of life being chancy and cheap lingers.

The bodies of young women, apparently drowned, are trawled form the Thames. They receive scant respect - a policeman trying to investigate has to hunt round several sites where a corpse may or not be kept before he finds what he is looking for.

Other young women (girls, really) are trafficked into the back rooms of nightclubs; some fall victim to drug overdoses.

The roads are dangerous, with no training needed before one can drive, and they claim their victim too. 

There is ever present street crime, sometimes spilling over into murder.

And, of course, poverty, hunger and disease consume so many that the victims - whether dead or on their way - are taken for granted, with those sleeping in churchyards or under bridges simply ignored.

I found this plethora of deaths a little reminiscent of Atkinson's Life After Life, largely set in the same period, in which the same character lived (and died) again and again, gradually outwitting Fate as though playing a game and able to respawn aware of future dangers and difficulties. The difference is of course that in Shrines of Gaiety there are no second chances though many would wish there were. The weight of the War hangs over everyone here, whether they took part (Gwendolen, the no-nonsense librarian from York, served as a nurse, Niven, eldest son of shady nightclub owner Nellie Coker, served in the ranks), avoided the war, were too young, or stood and waited, as fathers, husbands, sons, friends and brothers fell to the mud and the wire. (Yes, and lovers too).

That may be the reason for the frenzied pleasure-seeking taking place in the book as the Bright Young Things celebrate their survival, try to bury dark memories, or simply look forward not back - all accompanied by a great deal of moral tutting from the older, Victorian generation. If that gives the impression of the book as being rather loud, don't worry, it's not. The partying is mainly offstage, the story mostly taking place during hungover mornings and on dark nights after the clubs have closed. All the decadence does though make for a vibrant nightlife in Soho, with many lucrative opportunities for those who provide the pleasure, or at least, facilitate it: the book features hostesses in the clubs, sex workers, drug dealers, thieves, and police on the make. And of course young innocents who've come to London to make their fortune.

Gwendolen Kelling is not one of these. A former librarian who lost most of her family in the war, she may be seeking meaning, or she may be missing the emotional pitch of the war, or she may just be good-hearted, practical and eager to help. Or perhaps all of these things. In any case, she's trekked down to London in search of Freda Murgatroyd and Florence Ingram, two young women who ran away seeking careers dancing on the stage. We see (some of) what happens to them, their trials standing in somewhat for all the poor unfortunates dragged out of the river, reduced to selling themselves or dancing in the clubs for hours night after night, or ruined by drugs.

DCI Frobisher, on the other hand, may still be something of an innocent. Sent in to clean up the notoriously corrupt Bow Street station, despite his seniority and service in the police he's still upright and still seems to believe in the redemption of a corrupt Force. He also however believes in the threat posed to morality by such as Nellie Coker and he soon employs Gwendolen to infiltrate the shadier clubs, despite misgivings that he may be putting her in harm's way.

Others are less innocent. Nellie and her brood (not just Niven, but also Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay, and Kitty) and their rivals (the profitable clubs are rich prizes) and a host of others are out to squeeze all they can (pleasure, money, power) from the good times, or are simply ready to do what they must to survive. Atkinson is very good at showing how narrow the margin is between survival and destruction, and how simple acts of care (like Gwendolen saving the life of a gangster in a club or Frobisher giving a half crown to a starving girl) can make a difference. As can little bits of meanness - the theft of a handbag or just looking the other way or not thinking about the plight a young woman may be in.

As she allows the paths of all these people to cross and re-cross in the West End and Soho, Atkinson's abilities to layer an intricate narrative and bring her characters alive really serves the reader here as meetings (chance, planned, and missed) and depictions of characters, places and events knit together to produce a tight and fascinating story. She both creates a powerful sense of a particular time and place and also happily accommodates flashbacks from that time to show earlier years in York, the days of the War or even further back when Nellie was founding her empire.  

Indeed, the book is so well-written and observed that events and plot taking place now are almost immaterial. There isn't a sense in this book of needing to get to the next thing that happens or of waiting to understand why the last thing that happened did. Rather, I wanted to see what these fascinating, alive people would do next, how they would react to things, what their next moves would be. And also, of course, to understand that marvellous picture of a place, a time and an atmosphere.

There is so much in Shrines of Gaiety. A glorious central character in the redoubtable (yet so nice) Gwendolen. A portrait of a place and time a hundred years back, close to ours (the same streets one can walk today, the thrill of seeing celebrities and prominent people behaving badly) but also so strange and different (the overhang of war, foreknowledge of a further war to come).  A matter of fact portrayal of human trafficking and abuse (there are some similar themes to Atkinson's Big Sky in that respect). A sense of... I don't quite know how to put this. Of possibility? Of indeterminacy? Some things that happen here may not happen, or may be open to question, as though - for all the gritty reality - what's being described is a time spent slightly aside from the real world, in which consequences may not follow. Some references to A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps support that, those radiant, dazzling clubs perhaps a portal to a fairyland where nothing is quite real.

But at the same time, fairyland is a perilous place and "we pay a tithe to Hell". For many in Shrines of Gaiety, consequences do follow. We see the clubs, tawdry and harshly lit, the next morning, we see those bodies in the river and we see the hangovers and the desperate attempts by some to ride themselves of consequences. A shrine is a place for worship and sacrifice and there is plenty of blood in this book.

It's a book I adored, Atkinson at her very best, engaging with themes that, behind the tinsel and glitter, are weighty and important - and entertaining the reader at every turn. 

For more information about Shrines of Gaiety, see the publisher's website here.


  1. Interesting era to write about. I got the same sense of recklessness from Pierre Lemaitre's "The Great Swindle" set in Paris, and from watching the series "Babylon Berlin" set in Berlin some ten years later.

    I will try the book, thanks for the review.