‘Shrines of Gaiety’ a Delightful Romp Through the Roaring Twenties

‘Shrines of Gaiety’ is what its title describes: an entertainment, albeit a cut above the usual beach read. Yet one cannot help but feel that Ms. Atkinson’s venture into genre fiction is a distraction from deeper work.

Tim Duncan via Creative Commons
Kate Atkinson, signing books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Tim Duncan via Creative Commons

‘Shrines of Gaiety’
By Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 384 pages

What can’t Kate Atkinson do? The dame of the Order of the British Empire is a three-time winner of Costa Book Awards — formerly the Whitbread — whose books encompass police procedurals and time travel, spies and alternate realities, has turned her attentions to the light historical novel with “Shrines of Gaiety,” a sprawling picaresque set in the full swing of London’s Roaring Twenties.

“Shrines of Gaiety” follows the tribulations of the Coker clan, a family running an underground jazz club empire under the canny eye of their matriarch, Nellie — a formidable presence modeled on the historical “Night Club Queen,” Kate Meyrick, who also inspired Evelyn Waugh’s Ma Mayfield in “Brideshead Revisited.” Chief Inspector John Frobisher sets himself to ending their reign of vice with the aid of a peppy librarian, Gwendolen Kelling.

Readers familiar with P.G. Wodehouse and Waugh will find much that is pleasantly familiar in “Shrines of Gaiety” — toffs and toughs, antique cars, flappers, corrupt policemen, hardboiled policemen. Ms. Atkinson’s work as a detective story writer has served her well; it is in the crime novel strain of this latest book that her skill for plotting is most evident. Despite its scale, “Shrines of Gaiety” comes together like the innards of a fine Swiss watch. 

While the book eschews the experimentation of Ms. Atkinson’s early novels, playful postmodern techniques occasionally make their sly way in. “Gwendolen wondered what it would be like to find yourself in a novel. Infuriating, she suspected,” she writes in an aside about the librarian. “Writers needed to think a great deal, in fact they almost needed to do more thinking than writing,” she comments on a would-be novelist.

Playfulness is the dominant mode in “Shrines of Gaiety,” and, while it serves the kaleidoscopic tableaux of London’s glamorous nightlife well, it jars the reader when Ms. Atkinson treats the heaving battlefields of World War I. Gwendolen’s father had been a manufacturer of barbed wire, and she herself had served as a nurse at the field hospitals in France. The reader is consequently treated to the usual catalog of grime and violence.

Horrors long familiar become mere lists of numbers and triangulating physical descriptions. Twenty million men died in World War I; black mud, thundering guns, the sharp whiff of gas. So prose narratives about the horror — especially fiction, the putative goal of which is to entertain, to be novel — must always go further. Eight million horses; whistling bullets, a yellow sky, the stink of gangrene. It all begins to smack of the sideshow.

Ms. Atkinson tries to make a point by contrasting the parade of London’s postwar hedonism with the grim flashbacks; for this reviewer, it does not come off. Ms. Atkinson is no Wilfred Owen, and she never entirely subverts the bright note. “The war would never be vanquished. And, even if it was, another one would come along and overlay the memory of this one,” Gwendolen thinks to herself. “One must be cheerful.” This sort of summary seems flip.

The failure of the war passages points to the underlying want in “Shrines of Gaiety.” Ms. Atkinson has written an intricately plotted book with memorable characters and prose that is carefully crafted, if not always successful. She is clearly interested in writing about deeper subjects — the war, relations between the sexes. Yet her treatment rarely rises above the general — the war was bad, women’s empowerment is good, and so on. This is disappointing.

Perhaps this is asking too much, or missing the point. “Shrines of Gaiety” is what its title describes: an entertainment, albeit a cut above the usual beach read. Yet one cannot help but feel that Ms. Atkinson’s venture into genre fiction is a distraction from deeper work. Michael Chabon comes to mind — a writer of massive talent who is popularly thought to have been sidetracked by fun but inconsequential projects. Let us hope it is not so for Ms. Atkinson.

The New York Sun

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