I know Dickens isn’t to everyone’s taste. All those characters and all those crisscrossing plots and, yikes, the coincidences! But I love his style and I am a sucker for Dickensian books like Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety. I love the sprawl of these books, how they seem to contain entire worlds. Most of all, I love the fully realized characters in settings that are rich enough to climb into and walk around in. Shrines of Gaiety takes us into London, 1926, and a collision of characters who are plotting with and against each other. This book is absolutely stunning.
Shrines of Gaiety opens with the notorious Nellie Coker walking out the gates of Holloway prison. She’s just served a six-month sentence for a little light law-breaking. Now free, she can return to her half-dozen nightclubs scattered around London and her almost half-dozen children, who’ve been left to tend the empire in her absence. The opening chapters introduce all of those children, plus other characters like the delightfully capable Gwendolen Kelling, the morose Detective Frobisher, and the scrappy Freda Murgatroyd. There’s far too much plot in Shrines of Gaiety to sum up, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll say that there are missing girls, crooked cops, revenge, and lots of betrayal.
Even though there’s so much going on in Shrines of Gaiety, it’s the sort of book that carries you along. All of those intersecting plots are presented through the various characters’ eyes, so that you understand everyone’s motivation. Atkinson is particularly good at pacing everything based on how information is revealed. Several of the characters—Kelling and Frobisher in particular—believe that they have the upper hand for a long time, thinking they know more than the people they’re spying on. The reversals of power with each revelation are simply breathtaking.
There are some missteps at the end. They come straight out of Dickens’s playbook of coincidences. After all of the beautiful plotting, several of the loose ends are wrapped up really quickly. I can forgive those, however, because I liked the rest of the book and its characters so much. Gwendolen was an absolute joy to read and I cheered Nellie every step of her sneaky way. (Never underestimate an old lady!) In spite of those missteps, I would still heartily recommend this to fans of immersive historical fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.