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”).
Mozley writes with great verve and lively invention. Yet, while there are some good comic passages, and the central theme – which is the destructive power of money and its disregard for human values – will meet with approval from many readers, the novel veers too often into what is fanciful rather than imaginative. The register is inconsistent. There are too many scenes which simply don’t work and this makes for an impression of incoherence. A severe editor might have suggested revision which would have cut many passages and improved the novel by eliminating much that seems self-indulgent.
Despite so many characters, the novel doesn’t flail, it succeeds as a force. There are, conservatively, six characters in the main cast. Six is conservative because it discounts four people who are ethereal but extraordinarily impactful, and five others who are more significant than “supporting”. Also excluded is the snail who opens the book and pops up at turning points, not unlike a Shakespearean chorus. But at minimum, the cast is twice the size of what’s typically found in the contemporary novel. To direct so many through a labyrinthine story in just over 300 pages is a kind of mastery.
The ethics of sex work (a central theme; the “stew” of the title comes from an old word for brothel) are also explored. A Cambridge student shocks her wealthy boyfriend when she tells him she has worked as an escort to fund her studies. And while Precious and Tabitha have chosen their profession, and seem to have more protection than most, they try not to discuss trafficking. “It is only possible to speak casually about such things if they are many steps removed.” Moments like these are haunting, but Mozley doesn’t try to over-moralise, navigating the lives of her large (but just shy of being confusingly big) cast in matter-of-fact, elegant prose.
Hot Stew is expansive and ribald where Elmet, set in rural Yorkshire, was claustrophobic and restrained. It’s ambitious, clever, brilliant and very funny. It shows what happens when an author, rather than letting expectations weigh upon her, uses them to catapult her writing to a whole new plane. The story unfolds in a Soho brothel whose existence is threatened by developers seeking to drive out the last denizens of the once grimy and lubricious surrounding alleyways. The development company is led by Agatha Howard, a cartoonish representation of the rampant capitalist, who hasn’t reckoned on the depth of feeling and hidden networks of solidarity that run between the inhabitants of old Soho.
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.
Hot Stew’s many separate strands and characters are linked in both explicit and less obvious ways. Some of this is very clever and some of it is a bit clunky, even worthy. No matter — the story moves so quickly, and ranges so widely, that there is no time to dwell — either as a reader or in this review. The novel climaxes in a single violent afternoon that has been prefigured by the rumblings throughout the novel. It’s one ending, but London is never finished. Much later, when Precious travels by bus to a public inquiry into the events of that day, “she sees London whirling past like a magic lantern”. It’s a wonderful image, and one that sums up Mozley’s messy, fantastical vision of this beloved city.
Mozley’s narrative voice is usually fluent and witty but can be grandiloquent (though less so here than in Elmet) and even intrusive, hurrying in to gloss what the characters are saying and thinking when they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. For the most part, though, she moves easily between mordant satire and warmly eccentric character comedy in this invigorating trumpet blast against London’s increasing homogenisation.
This novel works a bit like Soho itself. It starts one lunchtime, midsummer, on a street corner at a restaurant table. You begin to take note of the place and its people and their often faintly bewildering habits. Mozley’s prose is simple but acute — if sometimes a little too much like a screenplay. Her piecemeal observations of appearances, habits and actions, her fragments of direct speech like snippets of overheard conversation, her sudden quick plunges into the mind of a character slowly build, snippet by snippet, adding texture and understanding.