On the Shelf
By Fiona Mozley
Algonquin: 320 pages, $27
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
The building has a secret garden on its roof, planted on a flat terrace that’s sheltered by nearby roofs but exposed enough to sunlight that parsley, chives, chilis and even a rose can grow. The garden is the purview of two women who live in the garret apartment. It’s nothing fancy — just a little patch of greenery amid the grime and rush of the city.
That takes care of the top floor of the 17th century building at the center of Fiona Mozley’s new novel, “Hot Stew.” On the floors below are a brothel; a French restaurant; and finally a cellar of sorts, accessible through a grate in the street, occupied by squatters. It’s an entire ecosystem, located in the London neighborhood of Soho, a historically gritty district of bars, clubs, cafes, sex shops and artists’ haunts.
In recent years, Soho has gentrified, a change apparent from the novel’s opening pages, when the building’s landlord tells someone, over lunch at the French restaurant, “This place won’t be here for much longer. I’m redeveloping most of the street.” She wants the building’s occupants out, despite their literal and psychological roots here. But none of the tenants — some more legal than others — are going to leave without a fight.
Though there are many houses in contemporary fiction, “Hot Stew” is a rare specimen of the property novel — a drama centered on the mechanisms of home rental and ownership. It explores not just the connections within a particular house but the ways in which the very concept of home has become precarious. Though the novel is set in London, many of the conditions it dramatizes exist in Los Angeles and any number of American cities where rents keep rising, neighborhoods continue to change and tenants who have made homes are priced out or forced out.
The impatient owner is Agatha Howard, the young heiress to a fortune made mostly in the sex trade and other illicit industries, then laundered into rapidly appreciating Soho real estate. Even as her half-sisters sue her for their share of the fortune, she wants to put more of it into these properties, resorting to increasingly ruthless tactics. Leading the opposition to her designs on the brothel-slash-home are Precious and Tabitha, two sex workers who share the garret with the garden and are organizing a campaign to halt their eviction. There are protests and meetings and flyers to make, threatening letters from Howard Holdings. Other dramas unfold in the shadow of this larger one, sideshows that all seem to become strangely linked together.
“Hot Stew” weaves in and out of the lives of more than 20 characters — sex workers and their clients, squatters, Cambridge alumni who Uber into Soho for dinner and drinks, actors in various states of “struggling,” journalists, police officers with ambitions, regulars at the local pub. What emerges is simultaneously a portrait of inextricable connection and total alienation. All these lives overlap, both physically and in their relation to payment and profit, networks of exploitation, systems that Mozley makes plain.
For Mozley, whose debut novel, “Elmet,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is thematically something of a departure. “Elmet” was set in the Yorkshire countryside and had a gothic, claustrophobic quality in its depictions of contemporary rural life. But there too, Mozley homed in on systems of landownership, tenancy and disenfranchisement — all of which she circles back to in the raucous neighborhood of Soho.
In this neo-Dickensian milieu, Mozley leans into the caricatures rather than away from them. The rich, especially, have a cartoonish villainy. One of the ex-Cambridge students is a kind of automaton who won’t let her boyfriend see her without makeup. Agatha collects artifacts from the French Revolution and keeps a yacht loaded for escape from an imagined impending apocalypse. This heavy-handedness at times gives the novel a certain flatness; despite their entanglements, the good guys and the bad guys are easy to tell apart. At its best, though, Mozley’s social satire is a refreshing turn away from interiority and toward a kind of analytical, social realist plotting of economic relationships.
Yet some of the best passages of “Hot Stew” are about place, not people — the neighborhood’s bricks and mortar, which has never been as stable as it might appear. Near the novel’s opening, Mozley follows a snail that crawls out of a box of companions who will be boiled into escargot at the restaurant. It crawls up the wall of the building, “flexing and releasing.” This snail’s-eye-view becomes a meditation on the sweep of history, from the building’s foundations to its brick and plaster additions. “When the bombs fell in London, Soho took a few,” she writes. “Dark lesions appeared in the lines of Georgian townhouses and people sheltered beneath ground. After the war, concrete came, and parallel lines, and precise angles that connected earth to sky.” Later still, as the district became commercialized, “Luxury flats stood on crumbling slums like shining false teeth on rotten gums.”
It is not giving away too much to say that the novel doesn’t end well for the tenants. But it doesn’t end well for the landlord either. Mozley crafts a surprising conclusion to their stalemate — something beyond these layers of historical turbulence embedded in brick, mortar, glass, concrete and timber. Yet even as the dust settles (literally and figuratively) on this particular property dispute, it’s clear that nothing has really slowed the pace of change.
The nearby pub, the Aphra Behn, a gathering place for the various characters, also has changed by the end of the novel. Its walls are now exposed brick festooned with faux antique ads, which have replaced the real antique ads. Though one of the regulars resolves never to come here again, “He knows he probably will, that he’ll learn to put up with the changes and then he will forget about them, and forget how the pub used to be and forget about the people who used to come.” So it goes, then: The forces Mozley has animated continue to churn. The traffic keeps on rumbling, people keep on going to the pub, the ecosystem adapts. Even the wayward snail, we can imagine, continues to crawl through the city streets.
Haigney writes about books and visual art for the New York Times, the Nation, Slate and other publications.