Review by Walter Cummins
The character of Gwendolen Kelling provides a form of ballast to Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety. It’s not that she can prevent the criminality and murders—bodies dumped into the Thames—but she stands apart from all that happens, except for her disappointed attraction to a troubled chief inspector. Other than that, she approaches the world around her and her various roles in it with a sense of irony, and she is a survivor. After returning from serving as a nurse in the First World War, she works as a librarian in her native York. Then in London, on a search for two missing teenage girls, she becomes a police informant, and manager of a nightclub owned by the woman she is spying on. When a thug named Aldo is shot in one of the clubs, Gwendolen jumps in to stop the bleeding, her new evening dress drenched in his blood. She isn’t bothered.
Although Atkinson doesn’t overtly explain, it’s the war that has given Gwendolen her fearless detachment. Not only has she been immersed in caring for the dead and severely wounded, her two younger brothers were killed in what was an essentially meaningless conflict mismanaged by incompetent officers and the politicians behind them.
In that context, the behaviors that make up the action of the novel—an eagerness for the drink, drugs, and dancing offered in Nellie Coker’s group of nightclubs, Nellie’s greed, her family’s frivolities, the gang violence, and the corruption of murderous policemen— all seem to be trivialities. So much for gaiety.
Atkinson, who found her inspiration in the real-life story of Nellie’s model, Kate Meyrick, treats it all with an aplomb worthy of Gwendolen Kelling. Her detailed inventiveness is embedded in a sense of humor. Here’s one example:
Nellie had entertained a fancy for a sarcophagus for the Sphinx [one of her clubs], preferably with its occupant still inside—Dalton, who ran the Morgue Club in Ham Yard, had coffins for tables—but she had been dissuaded from the macabre, mainly because there was a dearth of such novelties and even Niven [Nellie’s son] was unable to source an ancient Egyptian mummy in the West End. Shame, Nellie said. She knew that the denizens of the Sphinx would have been unfazed (if not delighted) by drinking their Rum Daisies and Queens of the Night in the company of the dead. It was that kind of crowd.
The fixation on Egyptology arises from the fascinating discovery of King Tut’s tomb. A sampling of the crowd Nellie’s clubs attracted included “Noël Coward, Virginia Woolf, Guinnesses, Rothschilds—everyone, basically.”
Other reviewers have praised the novel’s Dickensian similarities, and rightly so. Atkinson shares his ability to provide a panoramic view of a society, to create a large cast of original and entertaining characters, and to link them throughout a surprisingly inventive plot. Her world is convincing in the richness of its details, and the story she tells engaging and even page-turning.
Yet Shrines of Gaiety possesses a major difference from one by Dickens. Atkinson seems to be writing with her tongue in her cheek against the background of a war’s slaughter. Her villains, nasty as they are, are lightweights, almost laughable. Dickens, for all his humor, is deadly serious, outraged by the abuses of his contemporary society, especially its maltreatment of the poor and the failings of those in power. His villains and their deadly abuses are truly to be feared, a real threat that can’t be laughed off.
Dickens was writing about his present, Atkinson about a past decade before she was born. But her writing gives it a convincing immediacy. She tells an excellent story.