There’s a certain joy in opening a Kate Atkinson novel—a feeling that every element matters and that each surprise and delight will ultimately make perfect sense. Her latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety, takes us to London in 1926. The shadows of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic weigh heavily on the world. In response to these recent horrors, London’s nightlife is alive, well and effervescent.
Enter Nellie Coker—club owner, mother, notorious schemer—who is just about to be released from prison. Everyone is curious to see her, though she rarely lets people get close. London’s Soho neighborhood serves as the backdrop for Nellie’s life, as well as for the lives of her sons and the people who work for her and against her. Each chapter shifts focus, showing a bit of a character’s story, a glimpse of an encounter, a fragment of a person trying to exist in a complex world. We even get a fascinating look at characters who work in law enforcement.
Slowly, these moments overlap. Secrets, stories, debts and more come to the surface. As the fragments of the novel coalesce, readers witness interconnection, reverberations and consequences. Patience is required to see this puzzle through to its end, but the long game pays off, and there’s magic in seeing the whole unexpected picture.
There’s also pleasure in how Atkinson seamlessly integrates historical figures and moments into her story. Nellie Coker is a fictionalized version of “Night Club Queen” Kate Meyrick, but the novel moves beyond its inspiration, allowing the imaginative possibilities to guide the tale. Other cultural and literary figures are bandied about in conversation, which firmly establishes the novel’s time and place.
The history and setting add nuance to Shrines of Gaiety, but Atkinson’s characters and their choices, curiosities and corruptions keep the story unfolding, making the resolution worth every second.
CORRECTION 10/25/2022: An earlier version of this review listed the incorrect year for the flu pandemic, which occurred in 1918.