Hot Stew- Fiona Mozley (John Murray 2021)

Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.

Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.

Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.

Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.