Books

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley: A novel with something to say, but what?

This humid tale of sex work and avarice doesn't quite hit the spot, writes Patrick Maxwell

Soho, London. Image credit: Gotardo Gonzelz / Flickr

Soho, London. Image credit: Gotardo Gonzelz / Flickr

London may be an ‘unreal city’, but that does not make it any less attractive to novelists. Like all the big cities – New York, Paris, Tokyo – the idea of the place itself offers easy protection; characters are simply made one of a multitude who can go about their lives with little regard for time and place. Everything’s larger, smarter, busier, in London. It’s easier to make interest in London than, say, Stoke. Not that a novel set in Stoke couldn’t be interesting of course.

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Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew certainly tries its best to draw interest into the city a man can supposedly never be tired of. Among the ever-bustling streets of Soho lie Precious and Tabitha, two middle-aged women who work at the popular brothel they’ve lived in for years.

Agatha, the mystifyingly brutal landlord who has inherited a fortune from her gangleading father, wants to turn the property into expensive flats. It’s gentrification of a kind, but Precious and Tabitha don’t want to leave their derided lifestyles behind, and enlist the support of various well-meaning pressure groups to protest their cause on the streets outside.

Meanwhile, Agatha endlessly pursues her own way, via an expedient police boss and her cash, but the claims of the prostitutes to their own jobs draw in the crowds. Precious becomes famous in her campaigning, her enemy gains notoriety, and we meet a series of other characters who become gradually enmeshed in this particularly warm soup of a plot.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)

Mozley is a very promising writer, and this novel has points of affecting and bitterly comic prose. The sardonic, laconic tones of the narrative voice only takes us so far, though, and that almost faceless tone means there is little to enchant beyond the beguiling comedy of the characters themselves.

That this novel has something to say, even something important, is obvious, but what precisely it is is less so; Precious and Tabitha’s lifestyles are treated with a flippancy which gets in the way of any hopes of revealing anything deeper, and Agatha’s unperturbed monotone begins to feel ever more restrictive.

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All the characters, in their various forms of depravity, eventually coagulate into something resembling a concentric narrative as the feelings and recriminations become more bitter; Agatha eventually gets her way, Precious is forced to move out, her customers made to find somewhere else.

This is not a morality tale, nor is it a comic novel, but it often wants to be one of the two. The rollicking, heady vivacity of this novel is where its poignancy lies as well, yet it’s whether there is any time for reflection amid such a beguiling and abject setting as is portrayed we can’t seem to know.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)

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