Reporting on the funeral of Kate Meyrick in 1933, the Singapore Daily News declared: “Ever since this remarkable little woman [. . .] took the night side of London by storm, she seemed to live for publication in a sensational romance.”
In 2022, that prophecy is fulfilled. In Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson recreates Meyrick as Nellie Coker, the small, shrewd, indomitable empress of London’s dark side, “eschew[ing] traditional history books in favour of the gossipy, chattering kind. Shrines of Gaiety is fiction, not history.”
The novel opens in 1926 with Nellie Coker, around whom all the mischief, mystery, and magic of London appears to be centred, being released from prison in triumph and celebration. With both the highest and lowest of society (and seemingly everyone in between) under her spell, her order, and her control, the infamous, feared, and beloved Queen of Clubs has returned, an exiled empress re-enthroned.
However, there are barbarians at the gates. First, there’s the cops. Some can be bribed, but they can also be bought by other, higher bidders, made unreliable by the greed and ambition that made them pliable and useful in the first place. There’s Azzopardi, a greasy, degenerate magnate of foggy origins, poised and ready to intimidate, manipulate and blackmail not only Nellie, but also her children: stoical Niven, ruthless Edith, airheads Betty and Shirley, delusional, insecure, fame-hungry Ramsay, and precocious, overly- articulate Kitty. Then there’s Chief Inspector Frobisher, “watching the proceedings from a discreet distance, in the back of an unmarked car” and his would-be mole (or maybe moll?) Gwendolyn Kelling. Although, for him, “the delinquent Coker empire was a house of cards that Frobisher aimed to topple [. . .] it was not the moral delinquency – the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs – that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London.” Girls like Freda Murgatroyd, who run away to London with dreams of dancing on West End stages only to become meat for the grinder of Soho’s underbelly.
Switching perspectives through this multitude of characters in a swirling maelstrom of storytelling, including a bounty of beautifully Proustian flashbacks, Atkinson plunges you into a glamorous, grimy past where Bright Young Things play in the darkness, and the shadows of the war have not yet faded into the light. Kate Meyrick and Nellie Coker built shrines of gaiety that invited those who stepped over their threshold to experience another world and a life other than that inhabited in the everyday. Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety offers the same. Will you enter?