Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Set during the 1920s, this is a grand romp through the criminal underworld of night clubs and a family who run them.

Many people’s careers start with a stroke of luck or by being in the right place at the right time and that is no different for criminal families. Nellie Coker was a maid and when her mistress died, she sorted through her flat before calling the police and came across a suitcase full of jewellery. She took it and used it to start her own businesses, ending up eventually with a string of nightclubs run by her children.

The book starts with Nellie coming out of prison following a licensing disagreement with the law and follows her family and their misadventures all leading to an attempted takeover of her clubs. Running alongside this is the fact that there is a serial murderer on the loose and people who need to be kept quiet and someone wants their jewellery back.

From the postscript, Atkinson shares the real-life family that the story is based on and the research and reading that she undertook to write the book and it is extensive. The life is very well described, including the baby party – not babies but adults dressed as toddlers and playing children’s games amongs games of a more adult nature. It really did feel like the world was in a hedonistic whirlwind which couldn’t last.

Atkinson’s characters are believable, from the foppish and feckless Ramsey writing his novel about which he is very pleased to Gwendoline the librarian from up North who is capable and unflappable in all situations. Nellie’s children all have their own chapters written from their point of views

There were no loose ends once the story finishes and one or two of them are a little bit unbelievable. However, it is the women who win in the end, having suffered all the way through, and who see justice done in their own way rather than waiting for the police or legal system to deliver it. Nellie was, after all, the matriarch of the family.

I listened to this book as an audio book and the reading made it sound a bit like a Wooster and Jeeves in places which was amusing but I don’t know if that would have been what I would have heard in my head if I had read it. It was a real pleasure to listen to whilst I was making a quilt. It was a fine balance between the dizzying highlights of the time and a rather dark, unpleasant underbelly of London – both had their moments and together told a truer story.

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