Fiona Mozley’s new novel is excellent. It’s very different in tone to her outstanding debut, Elmet, but excellent all the same. Hot Stew has a large cast of characters inhabiting Mozley’s Soho, a landscape she builds from open fields in a virtuoso fast-forward motion in a matter of paragraphs. The buildings, the visitors, the inhabitants, even a snail in the opening pages, all add to the tapestry-like narrative loops and stitches that she assembles, giving this a suitably Dickensian feel. She’s good at the cinematic tracking shot, reflecting the life teeming in the capital:
‘Grubs and worms, awakened by the tremors, begin to settle again within the tunnels they have mined. They have followed the quaking rocks and dug deeper than ever before. Now that the clamour from below has quietened, they are left with the familiar shuffle of the city above: the pulsing of human footsteps, rubber wheels scuffing tarmac, pencils being dropped, hammers striking nails, knives and cleavers landing on chopping boards, mugs of hot coffee clinking on tables, bums on seats, bodies on beds.’
Stories and lives are inextricably linked, and there’s a humour and raucousness to this novel that the dense and ominous tone of Elmet shunned entirely. Mozley plays with absurdities in social mores, and inequalities in relationships (‘Stews’ were brothels in Elizabethan London), setting up a running theme of sex as a transaction or as an expression of power. Elsewhere, characters play roles (there’s a focus on what people are wearing, and there’s an amusing crown that makes an appearance). This is a stratified world, based largely on money and opportunities.
However, despite outward appearances, there are similarities in her two novels. As with Cathy in Elmet, there is a strong sense of the vulnerability of women when things get tough. And although done very differently in the two novels, there are similar images of a woman rising up, seemingly from death, to defy those who have hurt her. Ownership of land becomes an issue, and the idea of private and public spaces is once again a key feature.
I came to this new release with no small measure of excitement – I had absolutely loved Elmet back in 2017 – and Hot Stew didn’t disappoint (my only criticism would be that the concluding chapter feels a little too neat). This second novel just goes to prove what a brilliant writer Mozley is. I’m putting this out there now – I think she is going to become regarded as a literary heavyweight in years to come.