BookBrowse Reviews Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

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Shrines of Gaiety

A Novel

by Kate Atkinson

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson X
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
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    Sep 2022, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Award-winning author Kate Atkinson transports readers back to the heady years between World Wars in this delightful Jazz Age caper.

A few years ago, magazines ran pieces about how the 2020s were likely to be the 1920s all over again, full of excess and abandon on the heels of a global recession and much political divisiveness. Little did we know that we'd be spending the first years of these "Roaring Twenties" hiding out in our homes. Whether or not it was Atkinson's intention to give readers who feel disappointed by our current era a little literary escapism into the previous '20s, that's what's on offer in her novel Shrines of Gaiety, a delightfully manic journey into London's Jazz Age underworld, which she so brilliantly brings to life.

Atkinson's novel opens outside Holloway prison, where a crowd has gathered to witness the release of one of London's most unlikely criminals: middle-class, Irish-born, diminutive Nellie Coker, who's been locked up for licensing violations at one of the many nightclubs she operates throughout the city. The clubs have been in the more than capable hands of Nellie's oldest daughter since then, but for London's so-called Bright Young Things, Ma Coker's release is sure to usher in even more frivolity and licentiousness at her opulent clubs, which have names like the Sphinx and the Amethyst (named for the ill-gotten jewel that provided the seed money for her first club).

Looking on the scene with less gaiety is Detective Chief Inspector Frobisher, recently relocated from Scotland Yard to Covent Garden's Bow Street station to investigate a string of missing girls, who may or may not have connections to the dozens of dancers Ma Coker employs in her nightclubs. He's joined by a surprising but very eager sidekick, Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian who has traveled from York to London to look into the disappearance of Freda Murgatroyd, a friend's sister—and perhaps to find a bit of adventure for herself.

Suffice it to say that Gwen is successful in this last pursuit, as she is quickly drawn into the glamour and intrigue of the Coker family. Freda, whose story we also learn, is perhaps less fortunate in her ambition to act and dance on the London stage. And as for the tragicomic character of Frobisher, as he gets closer to Gwen, he might find that Ma Coker's nightclub empire is the least of his concerns.

Much as she did skillfully and delightfully in her Jackson Brodie mysteries, Atkinson segues from character to character and from scene to scene, cleverly utilizing overlapping chronologies and well-placed coincidences in techniques reminiscent of the best Victorian novels. But she also folds in issues of sexuality, women's rights, reproductive health, drug use, sexual harassment and other topics that ring true to the time but wouldn't have been written about so openly as the author is free to do here. Real-life historical figures make cameos, but not in a distracting or manipulative way; instead, Atkinson's focus is on the characters she's created and the many layers of loyalty and betrayal built up between them, making it clear that she—like the master storyteller she is—is entirely in control of the boisterous history she shares with her lucky readers.

In a way, it feels like Kate Atkinson's entire literary career has been leading up to Shrines of Gaiety. Here she melds the perceptive character studies and layered storytelling of the Jackson Brodie series with the sharp observation of previous historical novels like Life After Life and Transcription. This is a novel that is overstuffed in the best possible way, a suspenseful, propulsive narrative that will have readers sneaking time out of their schedules to spend as long as possible in the raucous version of history Atkinson has created on the page.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review will run in the October 5, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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