Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

Hot Stew is a novel about Soho, gentrification, sex work, and disparities, as Mozley follows up her debut novel Elmet with something similar in some ways and very different in others. It follows a range of characters who are all slightly interconnected, from the women who work in a brothel that takes up part of an old townhouse that the owner wants to tear down to a privileged young man who needs to reevaluate his love life (and whose father is the townhouse owner’s lawyer). As a woman goes missing and others start to fight to keep Soho as it was, it seems the area itself is ready to put up a fight.

People who read Elmet might find this one a little different, not only from the central London setting rather than the Yorkshire countryside, but also the range of points of view in the narrative and the writing style. I found Hot Stew easier to get into reading than Elmet, as it felt like it was trying less to be ‘literary’ and moved quite quickly between different characters. It was clever how the overall story came together through the different characters, though after finishing the novel I’m still not quite sure what some of the plot lines are meant to bring to the overall atmosphere and messages of the novel, which focuses on sex, power, and gentrification. And finally on the ‘comparing it with her debut’ train, this book and Elmet both have a very black and white morality that paints good versus bad at least in terms of the main conflict.

The latter point I don’t necessarily mind, as the novel was about how the old Soho was being lost due to gentrification, and there was a clear message against the wholesale conversion of somewhere with history into something new and expensive. Mozley also covers in passing a range of other issues, mostly with some eventual connection to sex work (there’s a very blatant Game of Thrones rip off that tries to say something about the approach the show took towards sex work and sex scenes), and there’s some interesting things going on (one of my favourite elements was the relationship between Precious and Tabitha, who both live in the brothel and are more supportive of each other than anyone else in the book), if occasionally they don’t seem to go anywhere.

Hot Stew has a great atmosphere and again Mozley writes a location with a real sense of place (and a kind of anticapitalist sense of place at that). I found it readable and the characters engaging, though I didn’t quite feel it all came together for me.