Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew couldn’t be more distinct from her first novel, Elmet, a finalist for the 2017 Booker Prize. But this lively story of class conflict in contemporary London offers more evidence of Mozley’s talent and versatility, marking her as a writer whose work promises both thoughtful entertainment and surprises.
At the heart of the novel is the city’s Soho neighborhood, where most of the ensemble cast’s members live and work. Agatha Howard, whose sizable inheritance supports the adage about all great fortunes arising from great crimes, has decided to renovate one of her extensive real estate holdings. But the neighborhood has long been home to London’s sex trade, so Agatha’s plan sparks a clash with a determined group of sex workers based there, led by Nigerian-born Precious and her older companion, Tabitha.
While Agatha deploys her wealth and connections to enlist a politically ambitious police officer in her plan, the women take to the streets to summon popular support for their cause, even as they recognize they’re “hardly going to get Bob Geldof and Bono fighting in [their] corner.” Mozley subtly wires these characters and others, including a semiretired mob enforcer, a modestly successful actor and an ex-drug addict whose disappearance heightens police pressure on the district, into a complex network of unpredictable and intriguing connections.
Whether the scene is a déclassé Mayfair men’s club or a fetid cellar that affords refuge for a collection of homeless people, Mozley brings her diverse settings to life, as well as the clashing desires and ambitions of her colorful characters. Hot Stew’s title is an apt one, as Mozley consistently stirs in tasty ingredients and exciting spices, and keeps raising the temperature all the way to its startling climax.