My dad has something of a Dickens obsession. When I was younger, I was wickedly tricked into trying to read Our Mutual Friend long before I was ready to do so due to its constant presence on Dad’s bedside table. I didn’t get very far. Now, many years and several thousands of student debt later, I find myself reviewing a contemporary work which seems heavily inspired by Dickens’ final novel, at least structurally. Like Our Mutual Friend, Fiona Mozley’s second book follows a wide cast of Londoners, and offers a commentary on “money, money, money, and what money can make of life,” as Dickens wrote.
The events of Hot Stew revolve primarily around a single, rundown street in Soho. It is home to a restaurant which does fabulous escargots, a pub called the Aphra Behn frequented by a man who bears the scar of a tattoo he would rather forget about, a brothel run by two women who share a bed but do not share romantic feelings, and an underground squat inhabited by drug addicts and a man known only as the Archbishop. Their everyday life is under direct threat from Agatha, the youngest daughter of a billionaire “property developer,” and sole inheritor of his fortune. Agatha, without much care for the current residents, wants to demolish the buildings on the street and replace them with offices and fancy restaurants for fancy people. It’s a novel about gentrification, darling.
A large cast is a daunting prospect for any writer. Fiona Mozley, however, certainly did not sink under the pressure. Hot Stew’s characters are all distinctive, without being so completely oppositional as to lose any prospect for realistic connections to be formed between them. Personal favourites include Agatha, the closest thing we get to an antagonist, Lorenzo, the actor who is trying to grapple with both the prejudices of his industry and the past of an old friend, and Rebecca, who is criminally underused in favour of her somewhat pathetic boyfriend.
Hot Stew’s interlinking of narratives is also to be commended. Thanks to the tiny scale offered by a few buildings on a single street, the reader is always able to cling to the comforting presence of familiar places or people when they are faced with transitioning into a new setting or narrative voice. Mozley’s ability to craft such a solid environment for her characters to act out their respective dramas in, is impressive, and is where this novel’s ultimate success lies.
We have two ingredients for a great novel before us: a well-established environment, and a cast with seamless interlinking. All that remains is set them free and watch them do interesting things for a few hundred pages. This is where Hot Stew trips over its own feet. The wider setting is well executed, but the details are left wanting. It becomes clear as the reader progresses through the novel that the author thinks their story far grittier than it truly is. There seems to be an idea that the mere presence of sex workers, heroin addicts, and, uh, former racketeers, is enough to create an atmosphere of grime.
The working-class narrative, when in the hands of an author who grew up in a catchment area where the average house price is almost £400,000, is doomed to fail without careful research and a sensitive approach. Reading several passages about a heroin addict who is magically cured by hanging out in a rich person’s secret underground spa for a couple of months does not provoke any kind of faith in class sensitivity or research on the author’s part. Additionally, while the characters are easily distinguishable at a glance, they do not hold up under scrutiny. Most of them feel like side characters in a comic book, and are desperately lacking in nuance.
Allow me to contextualise my gripe. When I was born, my hometown boasted the title of “drugs capital of the UK” thanks to a heroin epidemic. House prices average at about £120,000 today, over half the national average. Class insecurity is burned into me like a cattle brand. Seeing middle- and upper-class authors play with working-class characters as if they are inhabitants of a quirkily dilapidated dollhouse bears the sting of insult. Remember when I said that this was a novel about gentrification? I believe that it embodies that topic in ways that even the author did not anticipate.
Any Cop?: Hot Stew is a small-scale narrative writ large both by natural disaster and Fiona Mozley’s attentiveness. Its comic-book style, however, did not charm me.