Soho remains tempting territory for novelists, with its brothels, sex shops and seedy pubs still nestling among the private members’ clubs and sleek cocktail bars; it’s an inspired choice as the setting for Fiona Mozley’s second novel.
The Booker-shortlisted Elmet established her as a writer of wildness, at home in the most remote of rural settings, whose characters lived off the land. The switch to an urban location is decisive, but she’s brought her dispossessed cast along with her. The prostitutes and drug addicts and out-of-luck magicians who populate the Soho of Hot Stew are trying to get by, as the characters in Elmet were, without succumbing to the values of the rapacious capitalist world surrounding them. There is violence here, as there was there, but Mozley is interested in the idealism and adherence to principles possible at the margins. Together the novels ask us to envisage a society no longer defined by what happens at the centre, but where the types of solidarity modelled on the edges remake possibilities for everyone.
Hot Stew operates on a much larger scale than Elmet, and Mozley navigates between the minds of about 20 characters with virtuosic ease. This is the Dickensian sprawl, made more fluid by the addition of a cinematic sensibility – it reminded me of the cinematic realism of the 1930s. There’s a dazzling panning shot at the start where she introduces us to almost all the major characters without pausing for breath. We meet the two prostitutes, Precious and Tabitha, who have a flat in a collectively run brothel, where they grow plants on the roof and sleep together in an ergonomic John Lewis bed. We meet the low-life magician known as Paul Daniels, and his drug addict sidekick Debbie McGee, and the inhabitants of their favourite pub. We meet, too, the young property developer, Agatha, who wants to knock down the brothel and pubs. If these sound like caricatures, then it’s because they are. Like Dickens or Balzac, Mozley is interested in breathing life into cliches, using two-dimensionality to gain breadth and social reach. Mozley has a background as a medievalist academic and her ease with typologies, with tavern life, and indeed with bawdy good-heartedness, may owe something to that period.
As in Dickens, the sociological typology is turned into something more strange and satisfying through the visionary dimension of the scene-setting. Mozley’s descriptions of locations are exuberant, whether focusing on the fabric-clad walls of the brothel (“the silk tendrils are the red of bull’s blood. They are the red of sow’s blood. They hang as if dripping”) or the labyrinthine tunnels of the Crossrail building site that provides the setting for a brilliantly theatrical set-piece scene. The so-called Debbie McGee wanders away from her down-and-out friends to travel through tunnels of concrete and mud, tripping over the roots of trees, drinking the dripping water, until she finds herself in a millionaire’s disused basement swimming pool (“a fevered Hollywood dream, a Kodachrome test-strip”). Filling her lungs with the “ersatz tropical air”, she embarks on a kind of lone rehab there.
This could all have been too much, but it is grounded by the characters drawn from Mozley’s own generation: five recent Cambridge graduates. Bastian, the public school-educated son of Agatha’s lawyer, is oblivious to the poverty he unknowingly exploits. But a chance meeting with Glenda, a young woman he knew at Cambridge, introduces him to the precarious world faced by well-educated young people without family money. Glenda lives in a derelict room in Soho, getting by, unlikely to achieve her basic aspiration: to do a job she likes and live in a home she likes living in. Through Glenda, Bastian ends up questioning his own place in the world and his preparedness to perpetuate it.
Bastian’s discovery of his own social conscience may not be enough to start the revolution Agatha fears (she keeps a boat called Versailles ready on the Thames in case she needs to escape). Hovering throughout the novel is the question of whether change is possible. Certainly, the forms of protest attempted by the prostitutes are disastrous, despite the media attention they acquire. Mozley’s achievement is to create room for ambivalence and nuance, even when the book’s world is drawn with such cartoonish vigour. Are the police right to want to crack down so vehemently on sex trafficking that they end up destroying the lives of prostitutes? Are the prostitutes right to mock the feminists who urge them to protect their bodies from men?
Sex workers turn out to be a good vehicle for the book’s investigations, because their bodies remain determinedly individual despite their commodification, and because they are at once implicated in capitalism and remain outside it. Again, the connection with the Cambridge graduates adds complexity: Bastian’s girlfriend at university was funding her studies by working as an escort, a choice that he now comes to accept. In an age when so many novelists of Mozley’s generation take refuge in the dystopian, she has reinvigorated large-scale social realism for our times.
• Hot Stew is published by John Murray (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.