Soho remains tantalizing territory for novelists, with its seedy brothels, sex shops, and pubs still nesting between private members’ clubs and chic cocktail bars; is an inspired choice as the setting for Fiona Mozley’s second novel.
The shortlisted Booker Elmet established her as a writer of the wild, at home in the most remote of rural settings, whose characters lived off the land. The move to an urban location is critical, but it has brought its dispossessed cast with it. The prostitutes and drug addicts and unlucky wizards that populate Soho’s Hot stew are trying to get ahead, as the characters in Elmet They went, without succumbing to the values of the rapacious capitalist world that surrounded them. There is violence here, as there was there, but Mozley is interested in idealism and adherence to possible principles on the margins. Together, the novels ask us to imagine a society that is no longer defined by what happens in the center, but where the types of solidarity modeled on the edges remake possibilities for everyone.
Hot stew operates on a scale much larger than Elmet, and Mozley navigates the minds of some 20 characters with virtuous ease. This is the Dickensian expansion, made more fluid by the addition of a cinematic sensibility – it reminded me of the cinematic realism of the 1930s. There is a dazzling panoramic shot at the beginning where it introduces us to almost all the main characters without stopping to breathe . We meet the two prostitutes, Precious and Tabitha, who own a floor in a collectively run brothel, where they grow plants on the roof and sleep together on a John Lewis ergonomic bed. We meet the underworld magician known as Paul Daniels, and his junkie crony Debbie McGee, and the inhabitants of their favorite pub. We also meet the young real estate developer, Agatha, who wants to tear down the brothel and pubs. If they sound like cartoons, it is because they are. Like Dickens or Balzac, Mozley is interested in bringing cliches to life, using two-dimensionality to gain social breadth and reach. Mozley has a background as a medievalist scholar and her facility with typologies, with tavern life, and indeed, with obscene goodness, may owe something to that period.
As in Dickens, the sociological typology becomes more strange and satisfying through the visionary dimension of the setting. Mozley’s descriptions of the locations are lush, whether focusing on the cloth-lined walls of the brothel (“silk tendrils are the red of bull’s blood. They are the red of sow’s blood. They hang like they drip. “) or the labyrinthine tunnels of the Crossrail construction site that provides the setting for a brilliantly theatrical scene. The alleged Debbie McGee wanders away from her friends to travel through tunnels of concrete and mud, tripping over tree roots, drinking dripping water, until she finds herself in the abandoned pool in a millionaire’s basement (“a Hollywood fever dream, a Kodachrome test strip ”). Filling his lungs with the “ersatz tropical air,” he embarks on a kind of solo rehab there.
All of this might have been too much, but it’s based on characters drawn from Mozley’s own generation: five recent Cambridge graduates. Bastian, the son of Agatha’s lawyer, educated in a public school, is oblivious to the poverty that he unknowingly explodes. But a chance encounter with Glenda, a young woman he met in Cambridge, introduces him to the precarious world faced by well-educated young men with no family money. Glenda lives in an abandoned room in Soho and she manages it, and it is unlikely that she will achieve her basic aspiration: to do a job she likes and live in a house she likes to live in. Through Glenda, Bastian ends up questioning his own place in the world and his readiness to perpetuate it.
Bastian’s discovery of her own social conscience may not be enough to start the revolution that Agatha fears (she has a ship called Versailles ready on the Thames in case she needs to escape). Throughout the novel the question looms as to whether change is possible. Certainly, the forms of protest that prostitutes attempt are disastrous, despite the media attention they acquire. Mozley’s achievement is creating room for ambivalence and nuance, even when the world of the book is drawn with such cartoonish vigor. Are the police right in wanting to crack down on sex trafficking so vehemently that they end up destroying the lives of prostitutes? Are prostitutes right in mocking feminists who urge them to protect their bodies from men?
Sex workers turn out to be a good vehicle for the book’s investigations, because their bodies remain decidedly individual despite their commodification, and because they are both involved in and outside capitalism. Again, the connection to Cambridge graduates adds complexity: Bastian’s girlfriend in college was funding his studies by working as an escort, a choice he now accepts. In an age when so many novelists of Mozley’s generation take refuge in dystopianism, she has reinvigorated the large-scale social realism of our time.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism