I loved Life After Life – I think it’s still in my top books, and I’ll keep recommending it (go ahead, find it at your library and enjoy it!). But everything else I’ve read of Atkinson has not reached that level of enjoyment for me. I think it’s that (unfair?) comparison that makes this book a little tough to review for me. This book is fine! It’s generally interesting and the writing is mostly good (although there I have some quibbles). But it lacks that something extra, something magical, that makes a book really stand out – and it’s not free from criticism (some of which I’ll try to talk about, but surely if you read this you’ll find other areas that stand out for you).
The book is set in London in 1926. World War I was deeply felt by communities in England, and the characters in this book are reeling personally from their losses during the war. Nellie Coker, fearsome owner of a series of nightclubs that flirt dangerously with the liquor laws, is released from prison, but she knows her troubles are far from behind her. Her six children are, to different degrees, the heirs of her empire, but there are others who want to lay claim to her fortune. Some are ghosts from her past, while other threats are partners who are not interested in providing the seeming support they’ve been offering.
The book is told through multiple perspectives, so of course we see not only Nellie’s view inside the ring of nightclubs but also Inspector Frobisher, a man of morals generally who finds himself struggling so much with his French wife that he becomes very fixated on his work (although, one of my quibbles is just how bad he seems to be at his job). Supporting Frobisher is Gwendolyn Kelling, a former librarian from York who lost much in the war and finds herself in the rather thrilling position of infiltrating a crime ring. She’s sort of searching for the sister of a friend – Freda, a precocious teenager who left her rarely supervised home in search of stardom in London. We also get to experience the story through her perspective, as she navigates the streets of London and tries to make it as a dancer, all while looking after her friend Florence (who remains a mystery, even after reading the entire novel TBH).
The plot isn’t exactly surprising – some people are outright double crossing and murdering, while others are simply unwilling to be honest with themselves about what they want. Kate Atkinson really does a great job investing in certain characters – I did enjoy Gwendolyn Kelling and her brand of uber-capable romantic-but-not-overly-so feminism. Frobisher was tragically compelling. Ramsay, one of Nellie’s sons, was similarly tragic and romantic in his own way. Because of the multiple perspectives, it often felt like every few chapters we were in a different book altogether – there’s the will-they-won’t-they romance / love triangle; the spoiled rich kids getting in over their heads with drugs and cards, all while writing gossipy novels that are thinly veiled memoirs; the coming-of-age of a girl who realizes all too soon that no one on the streets of London can be trusted to help a girl’s career on the stage without ulterior motives. In pieces, the novel was really quite fun – but taken as a whole, it was often choppy. It never felt like it was successfully coming together for me.
I did appreciate that Atkins provided a coda for each character. Whether I enjoyed learning what became of them or not, I sincerely enjoy when an author provides a chapter that gives us a glimpse of what the future entails for each of these people we’ve spent the last 300 pages with.