Source: Review copy
Publication: 28 September 2020 from Doubleday
My thanks to Doubeday for an advance copy for review
1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.
At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.
With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.
It’s 1926 and Nellie Coker is just out of Holloway after spending 6 months doing time. While she has been away, her six children have been looking after her network of London nightclubs, with varying degrees of success.
London is buzzing with a post war enthusiasm for anything that is bright and glittery and helps to blot out the pain of the recently ended war. Dancing girls, drugs and lounge lizards abound. All of this is Nellie Coker’s bread and butter. Her nightclubs include the elite ‘The Amethyst’ where royalty and film stars gather to party, though her personal favourite is ‘The Crystal Cup’ with its pristine pink palace rooms above the shop.
Criminals and dignitaries mingle and Nellie’s empire runs smoothly with the help of cops on her payroll and her sharp instincts for any sense of betrayal. She brooks no opposition and her intelligence network is formidable. In her quieter moments she reads the future through her playing cards and is haunted by a ghost– a young girl named Maud who used to work for her – just one of the recent young women who drowned in the Thames but this one comes back to visit her.
As well as Nellie and her children, most notable of whom are the debonair Niven, dashing and devil-may-care and the scribbler Ramsay, a hopeless incompetent who dreams of writing a successful novel but lacks both application and ability and has an unhelpful cocaine dependence. Her daughter Edith is bright but not handsome; Betty and Shirley have half a brain between them and poor Kitty is the runt of Nellie’s litter.
Freda and Florence have run away to London from Yorkshire. Freda has dreams of making it on the London stage and Florence just wants to be away from her dreary life. It won’t be long before both girls realise that the streets of London are not paved with gold or dream employment opportunities.
As more young women go missing, what’s in store for Florence and Freda in their run down lodgings which double as a dubious refuge for girls in a particular kind of trouble.
Chief Inspector Frobisher is an honest man, which makes him a poor one. His marriage to a French woman, Lottie, is not easy, for Lottie suffers badly from depression and is not in the least interested in him or the rest of the world.
When librarian and former war nurse, Gwendolen Kelling comes to London to look for Freda and Florence at the behest of her friend Cissie, she finds herself in a difficult position – wanting to help Inspector Frobisher as an aide to finding the two young women but also finding herself captivated by Niven Coker, despite herself. She is divided between the devil and the deep blue river.
Added to this cast of characters are a bunch of even more unsavoury characters, some of whom have designs on Nellie’s Soho empire which was weakened by her absence.
Kate Atkinson presents a dazzling portrait of 1920’s London as a place where glitter is everything, living life to the max is all that matters and where young women are likely to be eaten up by a culture of brutal sexism, hedonism and debauchery, wrapped up in a gangland culture that is nothing more than brutal exploitation dusted with sparkle as a shoddy disguise.
Atkinson’s London is a heady mixture of life lived to the max and that goes hand in hand with corruption, exploitation and drug running. These are people struggling to find their place again in the aftermath of a horrible war and finding themselves in the grip of an equally vile culture dressed up as entertainment.
And yet Kate Atkinson makes all her characters irresistible; these are people you warm to, in the main and can even feel sorry for. These are vivid, sometimes rough, but often appealing characters and so you become fascinated by what their fate has in store for them.
Atkinson has used a broad canvas for this work and painted it in dazzling colours overlaid with some gold leaf and sparkles and it really works. Underneath though, the Thames is just as murky as ever it was and the deaths of so many young women are more than just collateral damage on the battlefield of gangland corruption and betrayal.
Verdict: It’s a brilliant, captivating read and well researched – some of it based on characters of the time. The tone is spot on, an omniscient narrator offers a witty and warm overview to this cast of disparate and often dissolute characters. It’s easy to see why it has been described as Dickensian. This book is teeming with larger than life characters in a chiaroscuro painting that is brimming with exuberance. I really loved it.
Kate Atkinson is one of the world’s foremost novelists. She won the Costa Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her three critically lauded and prize-winning novels set around the Second World War are Life After Life, an acclaimed 2022 BBC TV series starring Thomasin McKenzie, A God in Ruins (both winners of the Costa Novel Award) and Transcription. Her bestselling literary crime novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie, Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog, became a BBC television series starring Jason Isaacs. Jackson Brodie later returned in the novel Big Sky. Kate Atkinson was awarded an MBE in 2011 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.