Hot Stew

Fiona Mozley

John Murray, £16.99

I MISS so much these days. A year into this pandemic there is so much to miss. I miss cinemas and beaches and cities. Particularly cities. Most of all, I miss London.

I miss its galleries and cafes and bookshops and empty pubs in the afternoon. I miss its indifference, its relentlessness, its hustle and crush. I miss the river and the blue plaques and the ghosts. I miss the Southbank and Bloomsbury and the King’s Road. And I miss Soho. Berwick Street Market, Bar Italia, lunch in the Stockpot, browsing in Foyles bookshop, the hugger-mugger streets, the receding seediness of the place.

As a result, reading Hot Stew felt like a privileged day trip to a place now beyond reach. Fiona Mozley’s second novel sees her move away from the Gothic Yorkshire of her Booker-nominated debut Elmet to London and Soho in particular. Mozley, who is now based in Edinburgh, offers a vision of the district that is full of competing interests, sex, violence and encroaching gentrification.

The book begins on Midsummer’s Day in the kitchen of a French restaurant where a snail escapes from a box full of fellow gastropods destined to be lunch. The restaurant occupies the bottom floor of a building which will be at the heart of the novel and over a few quick pages, Mozley manages to sketch in the history of Soho – “Karl Marx dreamed of utopia while his wife cooked dinner and scrubbed the floor”– in a few vivid paragraphs, before introducing us to some of the novel’s principal characters: Tabitha and Precious at the top of the building and Agatha down in the restaurant. The sex workers and the developer.

What follows is a gallimaufry of a novel. In short, here comes everybody. As well as sex workers (Precious isn’t the only one) and Agatha the property magnate, we meet an actor, a Glaswegian hard man who’s turned to drink, the homeless and the lawyers and the police officers and the photographer and the hippies and the protesters. All the fat, skinny people, the tall short people, the nobody people and all the somebody people, you might say.

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The basic situation is that Agatha wants to redevelop the building, French restaurant and all. Those who live and work in it are understandably opposed. We follow the story from midsummer to the following spring through the lives of all those whose lives play out in the streets around the building. Protests, police raids, betrayals, sexploitational TV shows, all pass before us.

“Sprawling” describes the cast and plot, but not the writing, it should be noted. Mozley’s prose is precise, controlled, unshowy, deceptively readable. She tells the story through dialogue and short, sharp sentences.

She’s great at detail. And there are moments when she can change the mood from one sentence to the next, the way life can change in an instant and forever.

Perhaps, you could argue that some of the characters are stock types. Robert Kerr the ageing Glaswegian hardman for one, but even within the familiar outline he occupies, Mozley gives us a glimpse of a life beyond the cliches. Maybe too, you could argue that the book’s climax is too much of a deus ex machina (for all the prior notice that is elegantly given).

But the pleasure of Hot Stew is the company it offers. Our voyeuristic pleasure in the lives of the people we are spending the pages of this novel with.

The people and the place itself. Thinking of Soho at one point, Precious recalls that “people come here to drink and take drugs and have a quick shag, and people come here to laugh, and hear music, and dance, and to eat sticky sweet cakes and dumplings, or snails cooked in garlic butter, and drink chocolatey coffee and red Bordeaux, and watch plays, and hear music”.

Reading that feels like a promise of a life now lost but maybe one day soon, vaccines permitting, regained.