London 1926. Florence and Freda, two young girls, who have run off to the capital in search of fame and fortune; Gwendoline, a dowdy librarian taking a sabbatical to go find them, and Nellie Coker, aging moll, owner of a string of nightclubs and mother of six children, as duplicitous as herself: these are the main female characters of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety. Their diversity matched by the males: Nellie’s youngest son, Ramsay, a dissolute would-be author; Detective Frobisher, who immerses himself in work to avoid spending empty time with his war-damaged French or Belgian wife (she’s not sure), and Niven, Nellie’s eldest son, a businessman in his own right who keeps his distance from his mother’s enterprises. Let’s throw in a couple of other characters: a corrupt laughing policeman and a Maltese gangster.

The question I ask is this: if you were to mix a drink using the above ingredients would you mix the same cocktail as Atkinson? Because Shrines of Gaiety is definitely a cocktail, bubbles and fizz on the surface and something dark lurking at the bottom of the glass. (Makes me think of a grenadine champagne cocktail …)

Let’s start with the bubbles. That surprisingly would be Gwendoline, who comes into an unexpected inheritance. The resulting shopping spree sees her throwing away her dowdiness and turn into a more enchanting creature, attracting the attention of more than one admirer. Much to Gwendoline’s surprise, the consternation and disapproval of her landlady and the reader’s amusement. For Gwendoline is lodging in one of those post-war ladies only establishments where male callers are most definitely frowned upon and reputations are easily ruined.

As for the dark underbelly, Nellie Coker’s nightclubs provide entertainment for those trying to throw off the dark shadows of war. Champagne, parties, dancing girls, the works. But this is a veneer. The clubs are pervaded by mobsters and gangland rivalries. Girls are abused. Some go missing, their corpses fished from the waters of the Thames.

This is the direction of travel for Florence and Freda. Their story, told from Freda’s POV, is one misadventure after another, each reducing the chances of avoiding this fate. The hope is that Gwendoline finds them before they reach the end of the road, and to do that she must infiltrate Nellie Coker’s empire. Coincidental but nevertheless delicious plotting (more bubbles) sees Gwendoline leave her digs to become the live-in manageress at one of Nellie Coker’s clubs. As Detective Frobisher’s mole.

I offer that as an indication of the twists and turns of Atkinson’s plot. Plots rather. Shrines of Gaiety is not simply centred on the search for Florence and Freda. Each of the main characters and many of the sub-characters are given full story arcs and many tell their own story. Each voice is entirely distinct. (We even get excerpts of Ramsay Coker’s novel, The Age of Glitter.) Thus the portrait of a city and a society in recovery from the trauma of the Great War takes shape. There are triumphs and tragedies, inevitabilites and surprises. None more surprising than the resolution of the romantic rivalry between Niven and Detective Frobisher with an impeccably timed tease. Atkinson obviously had great fun writing this. I had great fun reading it.