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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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    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 416 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2023, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Power Reviewer
Anthony Conty

Slow Burn but Sizzles Soon
London, 1926. I am not a history guy, but I love that I have many friends who could tell you so much just from those details. “Shrines of Gaiety” by Kate Atkinson tells the story of a life of excess in the British club scene but gets to its point deliberately. You will not know the story for quite some time, so read no blurbs and discover its goal.

My favorite critic is an older British woman, and I agree with her often. Some books seem “too feminine,” “too British,” or “too old.” The book was all three until the story started; it was a prolonged burn, and I was confused after the first quarter. Since it is all set up, I wondered if I was missing anything. I did understand, and that is all there was at that point.

A friend told me she gave books fifty pages to see if she wanted to keep reading. “Shrines of Gaiety” takes about 150 pages. Protagonist Nellie Coker has six kids, and they all have a story. Because no one is an expert on the nightlife of London in the 1920s, Atkinson provides a great deal of background information. It rewards the patient.

You feel guilty waiting for someone to die, but once bullets start flying, the book picks up. You see the potential of wealth to find quick fixes and sweep things under the rug. The line of the book stuck with me: “You cannot make money off of your vices, but you can make money off of the vices of others.” Nellie does just that, but not everyone is what they seem.

I have often compared books to my favorite movies; the last two reminded me of “Forrest Gump” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” This book is like “The Departed,” in which every character has depth and requires a top-notch actor to deliver their message. There are many people to keep track of, but don’t let that keep you from enjoying it.
Power Reviewer
Cloggie Downunder

Superlative historical fiction.
“The war was history, and history didn’t interest Freda, she’d had no part in it. She was vibrant with the present and hungry for the future.”

Shrines Of Gaiety is the fifth stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling British author Kate Atkinson. It’s in the late spring of 1926 that the notorious Nellie Coker is released from Holloway prison, having served six months for a liquor licencing offence. Clearly, her paid policeman, DI Arthur Maddox, has fallen down on the job. Probably intentionally, Nellie thinks, and planning to take over her business as his own.

Her five nightclubs have been operating under the management of her adult children, but her stint in jail has diminished her. Nellie has her finger firmly on the pulse, though: she realises that Maddox isn’t the only threat she faces, and she won’t go down without a fight.

Gwendolen Kelling has come from York to look for two fourteen-year-old runaway girls. Freda Murgatroyd, half-sister of Gwendolen’s friend, Cissy has dragged her best friend Florence Ingram to London, promising a singing and dancing career on the stage. The reality isn’t as sparkly as they had hoped, but Freda is determined. She may not be entirely street-smart, but she’s far from the naiveté Florence evinces.

Having lost two brothers in the war, a father to illness, and then cared for her demanding, dying mother, Gwendolen quits her job at the library and seeks out DCI John Frobisher at Bow Street Police Station, assured that he is the man to help her find the girls. Frobisher is, indeed, concerned about the number of girls going missing in London over the last few months, believing that Nellie Coker’s clubs are swallowing them up.

Frobisher is on secondment from Scotland Yard, at Bow Street to root out the corruption that is rife. He is convinced that Maddox is the main actor, but the man remains frustratingly absent from duty, and Frobisher is unsure which of the men at Bow Street can be trusted: who knows if they are in league with Maddox? The ones that aren’t lazy or stupid, that is.

Frobisher quickly decides that there is clearly more to this librarian than meets the eye, and Miss Kelling’s timely arrival somehow has him sending a civilian undercover into Nellie’s citadel club, The Amethyst. She might spot her runaways there; she might just see something else useful…

Once again, Atkinson has written a brilliant story with a wholly believable plot that twists and surprises. In a tale that includes murder, blackmail, theft, corruption, and a prostitution racket, there is also plenty of dark humour, some delicious irony, a few farcical near-misses, and dialogue with many amusing mental asides. Loyalty, trust and a perceived lack thereof, also feature.

As well as main characters of surprising depth, Atkinson gives the reader a marvellously entertaining support cast: a war veteran who rescues damsels in distress, a somewhat precocious, perceptive pre-teen who fends well for herself, an aspiring novelist inclined to melodrama, a dissolute gossip columnist, and a jewel thief bent on revenge.

She gives them insightful observations: “Men talked in order to convey information or to ruminate on cricket scores and campaign statistics. Women, on the other hand, talked in an effort to understand the foibles of human behaviour. If men were to ‘gossip’, the world might be a better place. There would certainly be fewer wars”

Her extensive research into the era is apparent on every page, and as always, she is expert at setting a scene rich in detail with succinct descriptive prose: “The Cokers all had very eloquent eyebrows. They could conduct entire conversations with them, without saying a word” and “Sometimes he thought he could feel the weight of history in London pressing down on the top of his head” and “Much as he disliked being chained to his desk – Frobisher bound, his liver pecked at by bureaucracy – this pointless trailing around was time-wasting” are examples. Superlative historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Transworld
CarolT

Extremely disappointing
I know this isn’t the popular view for any of Kate Atkinson’s work, but I found Shrines of Gaiety disappointing enough to take her off my list of “must read” authors.
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Beyond the Book:
  Kate Meyrick

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