- Hardcover, 320 pages
- Published: April 20th 2021 by Algonquin Books
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Brilliant young British writer Fiona Mozley turns her keen eye from the gothic woods of Yorkshire to the streets and pubs and cafés of contemporary London in this much-anticipated follow-up to her debut novel, Elmet.
In the middle of the bustle of Soho sits a building. It isn’t particularly assuming. But it’s a prime piece of real estate, and a young millionaire, Agatha Howard, wants to convert it into luxury condos as soon as she can kick out all the tenants.
The problem is, the building in question houses a brothel, and Precious and Tabitha, two of the women who live and work there, are not going to go quietly. And another problem is, just where did Agatha’s fortune come from? The fight over this piece of property also draws in the men who visit, including Robert, a one-time member of a far-right group and enforcer for Agatha’s father; Jackie, a policewoman intent on making London a safer place for all women; Bastian, a rich and dissatisfied party boy who pines for an ex-girlfriend; and a collection of vagabonds and strays who occupy the basement. As these characters—with surprising hidden connections and shadowy pasts—converge, the fight over the property boils over into a hot stew.
Entertaining, sharply funny, and dazzlingly accomplished, Hot Stew confronts questions about wealth and inheritance, gender and power, and the things women must do to survive in an unjust world.
Hot Stew is Mozley’s sophomore effort. Her debut Elmet reached critical acclaim earning nominations for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Award. Agatha Howard is the sole beneficiary of her father’s wealth. She has decided to renovate his properties so that she can turn over the properties for a hefty profit. But first she must clean up the area by evicting the “undesirable” tenants who have long standing leases. At the same time she must contend with her half sisters as they fight for what they believe is their rightful portion of their father’s inheritance.
The Aphra Behn is a pub in the soho section of London that houses a brothel upstairs and a homeless camp in its basement. Among the colorful people that live there is a couple of drug addicts nicknamed Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee named so because of the magic tricks they play with customers’ money and Tabitha and Precious who are sex workers.
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Indeed a hot stew is brewing as these women join forces to protect their home. Protests break out and draw the attention of feminists, religious zealots, politicians and the press. Mozley is pretty clear cut on who the good guys are in all this as she examines power and gentrification.
Perhaps the best part of the book for me was when Precious discusses the agency of women and ownership of our bodies. It was a different take on sex work. None of these women were being “pimped out”. They have come to this life through different avenues, but work as a collective to protect and take care of one another. There is one scene where Precious and Tabitha are asked whether they are a couple. Tabitha responds that not only do they share a bed but they share finances. They go on vacations together. When one is sick the other nurses her back to health. If they have a rough day the other is there to listen to them vent and run them a bath. The depth of their relationship is beautiful. But Mozley tells us early on that their relationship is not sexual. The problem comes in how we view and define “couple”. If you define couplehood by sex then you are reducing it to something so very basic, as sex is a fundamental need. What really makes a couple? Our ideas about sexare constantly being tested in this book. I was with Mozley when she was talking about how women can choose to have sex, that we can desire and enjoy sex, that we can define what it means to use. But when I got to that one sex scene – EWW! All I can say is that it was really awkward and even if I ascribe the concepts of choice and control to it , I did not see how it added anything of subatnce to Mozley’s message.
For the most part the other women were rather ancillary and do not get much treatment in the book. In fact there are so many characters that I had to draw myself a map. At first I was getting frustrated, but then I thought about how fantasy novels are constructed and the time authors take for world building. The way I’m seeing it now is that Fiona Mozley is building up this world so that while the action is brewing and old secrets are bubbling up to the surface we can see more clearly the extensive impact that these power struggles have on this community.
Meet the Author
Fiona Mozley was born in East London and raised in York, in the North of England. She studied history at Cambridge and then lived in Buenos Aires and London, working at a literary agency and at a travel center. Her first novel, Elmet, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner and their dog.