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Shrines of Gaiety


Shrines of Gaiety

It opens with a young newspaper boy trying to catch a glimpse above the crowd to see what all the commotion is about. He asks if it’s a hanging but is ignored by the adults around him who are fixated on something. That something is the emergence of Nellie Coker, freshly released from prison, who is returning to her place in London society as owner of a handful of glittering clubs that make up the famous area nightlife.

The city is still recovering from the Great War and is in need of some entertainment and a bit of friendly debauchery. Everyone knows that they can count on Nellie and her six children to provide just that. Thus begins SHRINES OF GAIETY, Kate Atkinson’s exploration of this era in London history. The story is packed with as many colorful characters as a Charles Dickens novel. It reads like a love letter to London during a period of resurgence and much-needed postwar decadence that enlivened its nightly hours.

"SHRINES OF GAIETY is not so much a cohesive novel as it is a snapshot of a bygone era, with enough well-written characters and subplots to engage any reader."

Of Nellie’s children, oldest son Niven is probably the best suited to eventually take over her nighttime empire. But does he want to do this? Meanwhile, her second son, Ramsay, is thinking about becoming a famous mystery writer, and we are regaled throughout the book with some of his potential dialogue and inner writer thoughts. Other characters include Detective John Frobisher, who is convinced that Nellie will soon be up to no good and thus seeks an informer, and Freda Murgatroyd, a teenage runaway who wants to be a dancer on the London stage and befriends a fellow teen as they chase their dreams.

Frobisher may have found his “inside man,” and it turns out to be a female librarian, Gwendolen Kelling, who is more than happy to help. The only issue is that Niven has fallen for her at first sight, and this budding relationship will certainly make it difficult for Gwendolen to do her job. The local underworld is also at play and emerging out of their postwar rat holes, doing everything from spreading illegal drugs to trying to take over the hottest nightclubs.

Atkinson does a great job of peppering her novel with the pop culture of the times, which often made me smile. I loved reading about Agatha Christie’s new novel, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, as well as a rundown of other popular fictional detectives, like the great Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin. They provide much impetus for Ramsay as he continues to play with his own detective novel. Even though his mother has spread control of each of her nightclubs evenly among her six children, she gives management of the Sphinx to Ramsay, not realizing that his heart is not in it.

SHRINES OF GAIETY is not so much a cohesive novel as it is a snapshot of a bygone era, with enough well-written characters and subplots to engage any reader. Atkinson admits to basing Nellie Coker on the life of Kate Meyrick, the one-time queen of Soho’s clubland. She can do no wrong, whether it’s her terrific Jackson Brodie mystery series or her genre-defying stand-alone novels like this one. Any time spent with an Atkinson book is time well spent.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 30, 2022

Shrines of Gaiety
by Kate Atkinson

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0593466322
  • ISBN-13: 9780593466322