I’m here to report that Kate Atiknson’s Shrines of Gaiety is extremely fun and funny. Though, if you are at all like me, it will take you 75 pages to figure that out. I started out thinking ‘this is Serious literary fiction’ (and it is literary fiction!) and set in London after World War One and about gender politics and gangsters and so must be Dull But Important. Persist, dear reader, persist.
It is funny, smart, playful and entirely absorbing.
Perhaps another reason why it takes a bit of time to get your bearing in the book is that it flits chapter by chapter through third person limited narration among a motley cast of characters all interwoven with one another in the setting of London’s night clubs: a runaway teen ager arrived in London to find her fortune as an actress (spoiler: she does not find her fortune as an actress so much as nearly starve on the streets); a once-impoverished parochial librarian arrived in London with her fortune to take up a job as a spy (!); a newly arrived Detective Inspector tasked with solving a spate of murders; the head of a string of night clubs, Nellie Corker, who sees ghosts, reads fortunes and machinates to maintain her power; and the passel of Corker’s children half of whom are indistinguishable and the other half sharp and bright.
Threads of murder and mystery, romance, debauchery (a baby party! where adults dress as babies and fancy around with nannies and opium), theft, corruption and scheming. Delightful for the fun of it all, but woven through with substantial questions of how a society (or an individual) responds after a great trauma (say a giant war and then an influenza pandemic), of how that generation of women and men change as a consequence – both in expectations for their lives but of their roles in politics and the economy, of how little we can rely on the police.
I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I do think that if you make it through the first hundred pages without laughing you’re probably a bad reader and should just quit.