Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson


This is my seventh Kate Atkinson book; my first and favorite was Life After Life. This one takes place between the wars in London among the dissolute, the innocent, and a policeman named Frobisher. The central character is Nellie, owner of five night clubs run by her children who gather at the end of each night at her club the Amethyst to report the events of the night to her. Nellie believes in providing a good time for her paying guests, but doesn’t seem to think about fun for herself or those she pays.

The author says that inspiration for the novel came from the story of a woman known as the queen of Soho’s clubs during the 1920s, Kate Meyrick, whose divorce left her with little money and eight children. She had a series of clubs that were always in danger of being closed for failure to follow the complicated liquor laws.

Leaving aside the story told in this novel, I want to focus on Atkinson’s characters. Nellie Coker is largely silent, but everyone notes she always seemed to know what others had said or done. She was ruthless and feared by her family and expected complete loyalty. Edith is the most business-like of her children, the one who could be counted on to follow in her footsteps. Nevin, her oldest son, served in the war and always seemed to turn up when he was needed. There were two daughters, Betty and Shirley, who went to Oxford without any noticeable effect, and while they didn’t pay much attention to their duties, they were loyal to the family when needed. Ramsey was addicted and the most clueless of the offspring, fancied himself a writer and did finally “appropriate” a novel he could call his own.

Gwendolyn Welling had been a nurse during the war and cared for her very unpleasant mother until her death. Gwendolyn then took off for London having the good fortunate of learning of a substantial bequest that changed everything. She connected with Chief Inspector Frobisher and shortly afterward turned up in one of Nellie’s nightclubs at a key moment. She took charge in a dire medical emergency and even Nellie was impressed. Gwendolyn was reporting about Nellie and the nightclubs to Frobisher and though Nellie knew that, she continued to employ Gwendolyn.

The “innocents” mentioned in the first paragraph are Freda and her friend Florence. Freda runs away to escape her stepfather and took Florence with her, as well as Florence’s mother’s jewelry. Freda continues to be portrayed as an innocent despite evidence to the contrary.

After the author wraps up the stories happening in that interwar period, she gives a brief update for most of the characters, a nice little touch.

Kate Atkinson, Shrines of Gaiety, Doubleday, 2022, 394 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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