Tony Mott (trans Marina Sofia)
Corylus Books, 1 August 2023
Available as: PB, 230pp, e
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hokey Pokey via Neutrally to consider for review.
It's February 1929 and a snowstorm descends on Birmingham. All the railway lines are blocked and a disparate group of guests is stranded in the city centre Regent Hotel. Among them are psychoanalysts Nora Dickinson and renowned operatic diva Berenice "The Icon" Oxbow. Is their presence wholly random, or do the two women have some connection...?
I love novels with a strong location and well depicted setting - as here (the book even comes with plans of the hotel). They allow one to sink into the routines and conventions of the location, and watch the characters run, as it were, though the mazes of the author's invention. Having the protagonists isolated from their normal lives, caught briefly out of time, as it were, adds to the pleasure which here is enhanced by the jousting between Nora and Berenice, and by Nora's startling ability at mimicry - basically if she hears something once, she can repeat it exactly forever. That ability, and the idea of mimicry and of truth, are at the centre of this thought-provoking and satisfyingly complex story - as much as the series of gruesome killings that begins to occur...
An icon is, of course, a depiction of a saint or of God, but one that is held to be more than just an image. Beronice is named for Veronica, who mopped Jesus' tears, obtaining a true icon of the deity. Nora can reproduce life to a startling degree, and, as we find out when we learn the two women's stories, both have history that is entangled with deception, imitation and untruth (the cataclysmic event of Nora's childhood encapsulating this). And it's all taking place in the glittering, mirrored splendour of a hotel, an unreal place with its own contradictions: between the guests' accommodation and the back stairs (the map shows both the guest and staff sides), between the lives of the guests and those of the staff, between the guests' everyday life and their hotel existence. There are of course many secrets to come out, but before they do, they shape events here like invisible plumbing behind ornate walls.
The sense of a charade taking place, of everything being one step away from tumbling down to reveal what is really going on, is intensified by the two womens' positions seeming so shaky. Berenice is accepted and acclaimed because of her voice, which may however fail at any time (it has before). Nora is a woman in a profession dominated by powerful, manipulative men and - as Mascarenhas makes clear - even her presence in the hotel, as a woman alone, is on sufferance (she isn't allowed in the cocktail lounge unaccompanied, for example).
It is a bewildering, intoxicating novel, just as much so, I'd guess, as one of those Hokey Pokey cocktails (recipe helpfully provided) which Nora so much enjoys. With a real taste for time and place and more than a twist of the gothic, this is a book to savour.
I normally direct readers to the publisher's website for further information about a book, I'm afraid I haven't found an up to date entry on the Head of Zeus site here so would suggest looking at online retailers or indeed Netgalley itself here.
Which is only the curtain-raiser for a frenzied, funny and rather dashing story riffing off the Regency romance, as Eve is transported to a twisted version of early modern England complete with stagecoaches, highwaymen, ship's captains and a swarm of would-be Napoleons. It shouldn't make sense but it really does, Stross serving up the sort of convoluted wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels plot that characterises the very best of his writing.
The stakes are, as we learn high - for Eve, her personal liberty and identity are under threat, but for Britain and, indeed, for Earth, the event known as Case Nightmare Green accelerates. If Rupert isn't thwarted, the planet will be left with a choice of evil or worse evil.
I loved the choreographed incongruity of this book, the central action taking place in a sort of weird Regency version of The Prisoner and forcing Eve, a thorough modern young woman, to contend with the conventions and restrictions of a deeply patriarchal age (a theme running through the story as Rupert gained power over her by enacting feudal law as a ritual magic, turning Eve into his literal possession). I thought I saw similar themes to Stross's SF novel Glasshouse - with the difference however that Eve's "escape" only takes her into a wider world in which she has, literally, no personhood.
An excellent addition to the entire Laundry/ New Management sequence, and I have to say that in literally having an eldritch god assume the role of Prime Minister these books do escape the tendency for UK politics and public life to leapfrog the strangest imaginings of writers.
At least, I hope so.
For more information about Season of Skulls, see the publisher's website here.