REVIEW: Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

In brief: The story of the Coker family as numerous people try to usurp their London nightclub empire.

The good: A big cast with a lot of detail.

The not-so-good: Due to the large cast, it’s hard to get into all the character’s heads.

Why I chose it: Love Kate Atkinson’s novels!

Year: 2022

Pages: 437

Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin)

Setting: London

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Shrines of Gaiety is a big, sprawling novel covering a lot of disparate characters, all with links to (of part of) the notorious Coker family. Nellie Coker is the matriarch of the London nightclub scene and multiple parties want her empire – lawfully or unlawfully. It makes for a grand novel, rich with detail.

The story opens with Nellie’s release from gaol, it’s never fully explained why she was there but there are a lot of people watching. Of course, there’s her family, but there is also a policeman tasked with cleaning out Bow Street police station. He is accompanied by a librarian from York, and there are also some shady characters in the background. Nellie is aware that various people are closing in on her empire, but even she is shocked at what is happening with her children. Niven, a mysterious figure who drifts in and out, is seen to be strangely enjoying himself with Gwendolen the librarian. Oldest daughter has a secret, which she tries to fix with disastrous consequences. Ramsay hides a drug habit and his sexuality while trying to write a grand novel, which results in blackmail. Meanwhile, Frobisher the policeman is also investigating a series of deaths and disappearances of young women, which puts him in touch with Gwendolen, who then goes undercover in the nightclub. There is never a dull moment – the nightclubs range from glamourous to seedy, as do the behaviours of all involved. There are shootouts, a bit of romance and double dealings.

Although this novel has a huge list of characters, they are all very distinctive. I can honestly say I didn’t lose track of any of them. Sometimes I was greedy, and wanted to know more after the end of a chapter left me hanging, but in all honesty it’s better to wait. Kate Atkinson will tell you when she is ready, and generally it’s at just the right time for the plot. Initially, some of the characters will seem unlinked to the plot (such as Freda and Florence, two girls who have run away to London) but it all comes together. All of the characters get their closure at the end, even though it was very fast for some. I am of the opinion that it’s better to know what happens though!

The plot is good fun and it’s a great change to have so many characters and several plot threads going through a novel. Atkinson combines the Coker’s family and business lives together well, along with Frobisher’s lines of enquiry regarding Nellie and the missing girls. The more personal stories of Gwendolen and Freda and Florence add a layer of sensitivity to the story, and I found myself cheering these characters on. I loved the juxtaposition of the Bright Young Things against the younger, jaded Cokers – with the criminal elements it almost seemed like Peaky Blinders at times. (Although things don’t get quite as crazy as Arthur does in a nightclub). Atkinson tells this story so well, keeping the plot threads and characters moving. I think this would be a great TV series – the descriptions of each themed club (from the Sphinx to the Amethyst) would look fantastic on the screen.

Finally, I love how Atkinson has named each chapter. It gives a hint to what will happen and adds another level to the narrative.

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