Set in post-World War I London, Atkinson’s final film follows a nightclub owner

“Sanctuaries of Cheerfulness” by Kate Atkinson (Penguin Random House/TNS)

Wonderfully balanced between the literary bravery of novels like “Life After Life” and the more mundane but expansive pleasures of its Jackson Brodie mysteries, Kate Atkinson’s “Shrines of Gaiety” puts an irresistible cast of characters into an intriguing, convoluted plot unfolding in the afterworld. War I London exudes a Shakespearean air of ancient enchantment about the proceedings, and keeps you guessing until the end – even if something tells you it will be fine. Most.

Nellie Coker – apparently modeled after Kate Meyrick, for many years the ‘Queen of Soho clubland’ – is the operator of a series of nightclubs that mix London’s underworld and glitz, and the fierce matriarch of London. ‘a large brood which is often variously involved in it. harmful companies.

Chief Inspector John Frobisher is the “new broom” brought from Scotland Yard to clean up the criminal underpinnings of Ma Coker’s business, his job – to say nothing of the story – hugely complicated by all the devious doings of his underlings.

Miss Gwendolyn Kelling, a former Yorkshire librarian who served as a nurse during the war and whose mother lost the family fortune and then died, has come to London to find a friend’s runaway 14-year-old daughter – a search that brings her into contact with Inspector Frobisher, who is inspired to employ her as a spy in Nellie Coker’s orbit.

And Freda, this 14-year-old runaway, after a taste of the theater in the provinces and a nasty advance from her mother’s “costumer”, came to London, trailing her “slow” friend Florence (also wanted by Miss Kelling), to make a fortune on stage.

The story is such a complex web of devious plots and double-deals that it’s sometimes hard to tell who went out to get who and what the game is, even if that only makes it more fun. The spell from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which hovers over the drama (this is Miss Kelling’s favorite play, and is apparently performed impromptu in Oxford during her visit with Inspector Frobisher, among other references – he there’s even a donkey!) is kind of reassuring. And through it all, the “silent magnificence” of Gwendolyn (per Detective Frobisher) is a stabilizing influence, while brave Freda animates an otherwise sinister appeal of lost, abused and rejected girls, whose bodies continue to be fished out of the Thames. .

Atkinson’s narrative panache is somewhat historical – the brands, the trams, the flavors and the names – and abreast, the storytelling of his time and ours, scenes that unfold only to go back and forth. filled with a new perspective, characters annotating their own thoughts. And often it’s just plain funny, especially within the confines of the Coker family, which is funny in the least sentimental way.

This is storytelling at its best – entertaining, moving, surprising – as faithful to the rich tradition of Dickens as it is to the demands of our times.

“Sanctuaries of Cheerfulness” by Kate Atkinson; Double Day (416 pages, $29)

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement