Verisimilitude is not the pressing concern of Hot Stew, the second novel by Fiona Mozley, whose first, Elmet, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. Set in the upstairs flats and subterranean bunkers of contemporary Soho, the novel introduces a loosely connected cast of characters who live, work and play in the district. At the centre are two sex workers, Precious and Tabitha, struggling against the machinations of sociopathically wealthy developer Agatha Howard, who wants to evict them in order to ‘blank-slate’ and redevelop their 300-year-old building. They have a visitor, Robert Kerr, a washed-up, boozy ex-gangster who, when he’s not upstairs with the women, frequents the Aphra Behn pub down at street level, drinking with his friend Lorenzo, a barely aspiring actor in his mid-thirties. Tangentially connected to these people are Bastian and Rebecca, wealthy Cambridge grads clinging by rote to a relationship, Laura and Glenda, lightly sketched characters with whom they were at university, Jackie Rose and Michael Warbeck, two police officers whose presence flares and then fades, and a range of Dickensian stock figures (Anastasia, Agatha’s mercenary mother; Roster, an adumbral go-to man and chauffeur; various prostitutes, bouncers and receptionists who work the pubs and walk-ups). Underground, in a cavernous, dirt-floored cellar beneath, apparently, Soho Square, the Archbishop, a wild-haired, time-travelling guru, preaches to a congregation of homeless, drug-addicted followers wearing a golden crown pulled from the turned soil at the site of the Crossrail excavation. It all feels rather convoluted.
Several of the story lines are well imagined, particularly one involving Precious and Tabitha, who, cosy in their flat and with their cherished roof-ledge garden, have a tender and trusting relationship. That they only ever seem to have one john, Robert, with whom they have a friendly rapport, means that