Sunday, November 27, 2022

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

 Whenever I finish a book by Kate Atkinson, I realize I need to read all of them. Shrines of Gaiety was no exception. I was first introduced to Atkinson with Life after Life (published the same year as Jill McCorkle's wonderful novel of the same title). In that book, Atkinson was able to pull off her stunning plot twists--or splits--without coming across as gimmicky at all. The sequel Gods in Ruins, with the brother of the protagonist of Life after Life in focus, was just as cleverly plotted but in a fresh way.

I also found Transcription worth reading. I realize that while some books I read don't take root, hers stick with me, even small details. Her latest, Shrines of Gaiety, is set in post-WWI London. It opens with the release of Nellie Coker from prison on liquor license charges, returning like a celebrity to continue running her businesses--bars and restaurants servingas fronts for her other illegal endeavors. No motherly figure, Coker nonetheless has produced a number of offspring--two sons and four daughters--whom she is putting into position to run her shady empire, to mixed results.

Into her world, Atkinson introduces two runaway girls from York--Freda, an aspiring but mediocre actress, and her best friend  Florence, who comes from a better family but lacks street smarts. Atkinson introduces two other important characters--Gwendolyn Kelling, a nurse during the war now working as a librarian, and Frobisher, the London detective to whom she turns to help find Freda, the half-sister of her friend. 

Some have compared Atkinson's development of the novel's setting as Dickensian. She weaves small historical details through the story in an intriguing way. After King Tut's tomb was disturbed, for example, all things Egyptian are the rage, while much of London fears the curse unleashed in the process. She depicts the debauchery of young revelers, regularly throwing costume parties as an excuse to disguise themselves as Pierrot or as adult-sized babies, the disappearance of disposable young women caught up in Nellie's seedy business, and the levels of corruption of law officers.

What I enjoyed most, though, was Atkinson's ability to write one great sentence after another. She makes me want to underline in my hardcovers or call someone to read aloud. She makes me want to read something else she has written. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Emma Straub: This Time Tomorrow


Time travel books and movies fascinate me. They always have. I love the anachronisms--the modern coin in Christopher Reeve's pocket in Somewhere in Time that sends him back, the Exxon map in the Wild West that baffles the locals as much as the rider's motorcycle in a movie from the 70s or 80s whose title I have forgotten. Stephen King's November 22, 1963 made me anxious when knowledge from the present world came into contact or conflict with the past. 

Emma Straub's recent novel This Time Tomorrow sets up the best kind of time travel suspense. Her protagonist Alice Stern (an art major like the last novel character I met) is not living the life she anticipated. Just turning forty, she's single, but not eager for her younger boyfriend to pop the question. After her mother left to explore her own new age interests, Alice was raised by her father, famous for writing Time Brothers, a cult favorite time travel novel that went on to inspire a popular TV series. As the novel opens, Alice's father is hospitalized with a less-than-hopeful prognosis. 

She is working at Belvedere, the same exclusive Manhattan prep school she attended in high school and visiting her father in the hospital when she is off work. After a birthday celebration with her long-time best friend Samantha, cut short by an emergency in home with one of Sam's children, Alice stops for drinks--too many drinks--and heads to her childhood home instead of returning to her apartment. 

[Spoiler alert!] When she wakes in her childhood bedroom on her sixteenth birthday, she begins a cycle of return visits. Exploring what her father's friends refer to as the "Baby Hitler" paradox--if you go back in time and kill baby Hitler, how will the future be changed?--Alice finds that small things she does or says in her past have sometimes unanticipated changes in the future.

For me, the greatest suspense in these novels comes when the characters arrive in a life for which they are unprepared, sometimes with a different family or career, and they have to bluff their way through until putting the pieces together. Most recently, I'd read Oona out of Order, another book with a time-traveling birthday girl, always landing in a different year of her life, sometimes more aware of the future than the immediate past.

In This Time Tomorrow, Straub maintains the suspense and the threads of the story, creating a portrait of love and friendship. The novel may leave readers wondering what they would change if they had one chance--or many--for a do-over.