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  • ★★★★★

Buzz: the second novel from the Booker-shortlisted author of Elmet.

Soho has always seemed to me like the true centre of London. Sure, other places have the shops, museums, monuments and seats of power; main line rail links and access to the Thames — but Soho has London’s soul. And if you’re not inclined to think of cities possessing souls, then purely in terms of measurement it wins — the official centre of London is apparently Charing Cross, and Soho is just a short skip across from there.

During my years living in London it was the place I found most irresistible, and yet, for such a neat little square of a place, I somehow found it impossible to truly master. Even after a decade zipping through it, I could still always get lost there, and often did. It beguiles and defies you, all while drowning you in its layers of history. For me, it rang with personal historical resonance as my mum’s first teaching job was at a tiny school at the edge of Chinatown, on Great Windmill Street. I loved imagining her in the middle of the swinging 60s, scurrying through Soho with a bag of books: a Soho existence a million miles away from mine, and, in turn, miles again from Soho’s next inhabitant. Because all stories are possible here.

The diversity of Soho experiences, the soul, the history…all of these things are wrapped up in Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew. The novel follows a cast of characters who still cling on to living in the district, despite the shrinking residential sector. There’s Precious, a mum-of-two, political activist and prostitute; Bastian, a privileged trust-fund type with a job at his dad’s company and a wonderful tenderness and sensitivity; Robert, an ex-neo-Nazi thug with a gay best friend, and ‘Debbie McGee’ a silent desiccated waif of a heroin addict who undergoes a remarkable change. There are no stereotypes here, but the characters aren’t exactly realistic either. Mozley draws them with bold sweeps and intricate nuance all at once. They’re larger than life, but all touching and charming in their own way. Hyperreal, almost.

The narrative switches between these points of view in a way that could very well be confusing. Often I find a large cast dilutes the story, or I find myself looking forward to one strand while simply tolerating others. But, in Hot Stew, I wanted more of every character’s perspective. I was a bit amazed and disappointed when my kindle told me I was 78% through and I felt like I was just getting started with everyone.

All these characters are grappling with change, either choosing to or being forced to shake off ingrained habits and expectations. This is true for Soho too. When I went back recently, the place was transformed, glossed up, anonymised. I didn’t dare look to see if my favourite little alcohol shop was still there, selling flavours and combinations that used to only be found in dusty little Soho shops but now take up a full aisle of Tesco. And it’s this force of capitalism erasing Soho’s character that forms the basis of Hot Stew’s plot. A developer is hoping to coerce the resident sex workers out of a bit of prime real estate by upping their rents, but they’re not prepared to go easily.

But while the plot is based in reality, like the complex hyperrealism of the characters, it is far from realism. Hot Stew is more like a performance piece, in prose form. Some chapters are theatrical set pieces, that exist to shine a light on an aspect of character, like a moment when a crown is found. Other parts are pure cinema. I was totally beguiled by this book from the opening scene — so much so that I found myself reading the starting sequence aloud to two different people. It’s a cinematic panning shot you can see in crystal-clear 16:8 as you read, starting with a snail and zooming out to set the scene for the entire novel.

Soho doesn’t get the Hollywood treatment though, there’s no glamour here. I don’t know which director would make the film of this book, but I would watch it in a heartbeat. Mainly to celebrate its mercurial grand dame of a leading lady, celebrated in all her gritty, disappearing, cherished glory: the wonderful Soho herself.

Published: John Murray, 18th March 2021

  • ★★★★★

I find myself talking about or recommending this book surprisingly often. I'm not normally great with non-fiction — I always crave a story and resist dedicating a lot of time to a single point of view or theory. Most non-fiction feels either too broad or too narrow.

The magic of Entangled Life is that it is both all-encompassingly broad and beautifully focused all at once. Narrow, because it’s all about fungi, just that. Broad because fungi are apparently relevant to all life on earth. As the blurb says: “Neither plant nor animal, they are found throughout the earth, the air and our bodies. They can be microscopic, yet also account for the largest organisms ever recorded.” And that doesn’t even hint at the level of wow-factor revelations about fungi in this book.

Entangled Life genuinely changed how I see the world.

  • ★★★★☆

Once Upon A River is a self-consciously clever book, in a way I found very satisfying. It’s structured so the individual stories all grow and flow into each other like tributaries into the river it’s set upon, emotional undercurrents shifting and changing.

Stories are another theme, and the narrator’s perspective encourages us to view all the moments presented to us with a little scepticism; like we were sat in the pub the book opens in, listening to a story by the fire.

The tale they share is of a mysterious girl, who, after appearing drowned, comes to life, her identity a mystery.

Just like being swept along by the river, or caught up in a story, I found myself carried along from start to finish: it is totally immersive. There were characters I would happily spend days in the company of; the farmer Robert Armstrong and the nurse Rita are both original and compelling.

At the end, however, it felt like the spell broke: the story wrapped up and the river lost itself to the sea. I was released from the story without looking at anything differently, or inspired or motivated in any particular way. So while it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, it’s not quite 5* from me.

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