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Hot Stew

Review

Hot Stew

Fiona Mozley’s first novel, ELMET, was a surprise finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Since reading that accomplished debut, I’ve been eager to discover what this talented young writer would do next. The answer? Something completely different but no less sensational.

ELMET took place in an ancient forest and was infused with scenes of mythic nature and violence in a setting that seemed almost outside of time. By contrast, the events of HOT STEW feel like they could be occurring on a different planet, even though it’s only a few hundred miles away on the same island. It is set in London’s Soho neighborhood, which was named for the calls of the fox hunters who once traipsed across its landscapes. Over time, Soho gained a reputation for brothels and sex shops, as well as nightclubs and pubs. The Soho in Mozley’s novel is still that one…sort of. But it’s also a neighborhood on the brink of drastic change, one of the last remaining parts of London that hasn’t already been gentrified.

"[D]espite the seriousness of its themes, HOT STEW is a very funny book. Mozley’s sly observations and clear affection for many of her characters combine to create a novel that is nothing less than a joy to read."

To tell her story, Mozley introduces a broad array of characters from different walks of life and gradually reveals how many of their lives intersect in the past and present. There’s the prostitute Precious and her “maid” Tabitha, a retired prostitute herself who now helps Precious with housekeeping and companionship in exchange for room and board. There’s Agatha, a fabulously wealthy and ruthless real estate magnate, intent on kicking out the sex workers from the building she owns so that she can develop it and sell it at a profit --- before the press starts to look too closely at the source of her inherited wealth. And there’s Robert, once one of Agatha’s father’s enforcers and now a sad old man trying to atone for his past crimes, while finding companionship at the local pub and in Precious’ bed. There are addicts, actors, lovesick millennials, would-be magicians and individuals with deranged delusions of grandeur.

HOT STEW is structured in four parts, checking in on all the characters over the course of a year, once at the start of each season. Part of the delight of the novel is having the feeling of dropping in on these characters for a few intense hours, followed by gaps of a few months that yield great change, or none at all. The book’s multifaceted nature builds to a showdown between the sex workers and the powers that hope to displace them.

But this is just one of the strands of a story that touches repeatedly on the ways that inequalities --- of power, of opportunity, of economic circumstances --- shape people’s lives, especially those of women, immigrants and people of color. How these themes manifest themselves continually surprise the reader but give the novel a sense of unity and structure that extends beyond its geographic setting.

It also is worth noting that, despite the seriousness of its themes, HOT STEW is a very funny book. Mozley’s sly observations and clear affection for many of her characters combine to create a novel that is nothing less than a joy to read.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 30, 2021

Hot Stew
by Fiona Mozley

  • Publication Date: April 20, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1643751557
  • ISBN-13: 9781643751559