Atkinson takes readers to Jazz-Age London in dark, dramatic family saga

PENNY A PARRISH For the Independent Lance–Star

Imagine London in 1920. The Great War is over, and the young and old are hungry to enjoy life again. After dark, when the clubs offer drinks, dancing – and maybe trouble.

This is the setting for Kate Atkinson’s new book. It begins outside a prison, where visitors often gather to watch a hanging. But today, they saw Old Ma Coker released after six months behind bars. Coker and his grown children run five nightclubs, ranging from fancy to shabby. Clients include handsome men who pay girls to dance with them, and famous guests such as the Prince of Wales and Rudolph Valentino. Everyone pays to get in.

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The six Coker brothers were a mixed bag. The eldest Niven, who served in the Great War and managed little business, enjoyed his luxury car and his dog. Daughter Edith was trained as a bookkeeper and accountant and was seen as the right child to take over her mother’s empire. Sisters Shirley and Betty are college educated and interested in anything that doesn’t involve using their brains. Son Ramsay aspires to be a good writer but is always at a loss for words. Baby Kitty, only 11, manages as much as she can in this dysfunctional family with her own creative activities.

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Atkinson adds an interesting cast to this kid. There is Chief Inspector John Frobisher who aims to bring down the Coker government while dealing with corruption in the police department. Gwendolen Kelling, the librarian-turned-heritage-turned-undercover-operative, found joy helping Frobisher while working in Coker’s offices. Young Freda wants to be an actress, and runs away from home with her friend Florence who suddenly disappears. In a way, Atkinson bridges these differences.

His writing often makes me laugh out loud. “Salads are not the chef’s specialty; This looks like it would be more at home in an aquarium. Even though the book is set about 100 years ago, there are still some issues today. Ms. Kelling, working as a librarian, wondered if it was the librarian’s job to decide what people read. Thoughts on the war and its aftermath are also included in the book.

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Atkinson is often referred to as the modern Dickens with his stories and illustrations. A fair comparison.

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