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. 


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