For a novel set partly in a Soho brothel, Hot Stew is an oddly bloodless affair. Tawdry characters drift in and out of each other’s lives but rarely seem to capture the author’s full imagination. Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet,concerned a self-sufficient family living in Yorkshire and occupying ‘a strange, sylvan otherworld’, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. This second book is a decided change of tack.
The prose sometimes has an appealing vagueness:
After the war, the concrete came, and parallel lines, and precise angles that connected earth to sky. Houses were rebuilt, shops were rebuilt, and new paving stones were laid. The dead were buried. The past was buried. There were new kinds of men and new kinds of women. There was art and music and miniskirts and sharp haircuts to match the skyline.
This can work well when describing swathes of history and architecture, but is less effective when it comes to character. The most engaging figures are the prostitutes and their ‘maids’, former prostitutes themselves who help with the women’s day-to-day lives. The humour and solidarity between these people, particularly in the face of ruthless developers who wish to move them along, helps vivify the book. Young Scarlet, Candy and Precious discuss a rent increase and are overheard by a client whom Young Scarlet is keeping waiting:
‘For fuck’s sake. If I wanted to lose 80 per cent of my income each month I’d still have a fucking pimp.’ The man’s voice comes from within. ‘I’m in here losing 80 per cent of my erection.’
There are some poignant scenes, not least featuring a couple who are nicknamed Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee because the man performs magic tricks. In the Aphra Behn, the pub they frequent, it is well known that ‘Paul Daniels is not allowed to lose’ bets on his magic tricks, and we witness his desperation when confronted with a stranger who does not know this. There is also a rather clever and original sex scene between teenagers, with the boy observing of the girl:
He could not tell if she was moved by sexual desire or by a desire to get the job done. It seemed to him it was the latter. He knew her well and this was her homework face.
Overall, however, it is hard to see what all this amounts to — and it could also have been a bit more fun.
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