By Sara van der Woude
Fiona Mozley’s second novel, Hot Stew (2021), opens with a snail escaping its unlucky fate as escargot-to-be, subsequently tracing an almost mythical origin story of Soho, London. We hear the trampling of the deer that used to be hunted on the former moor, the stapling of bricks as the terrain is consolidated into a residential area, the dropping of bombs that would forever change the face of the city, and the bustle of what would become one of London’s most important entertainment districts.
Eventually, the snail leads us to the roof of a Soho building, where sex workers Precious and Tabitha have set up a garden on top of the brothel where they work. However, the serenity of the garden is deceptive: the two women may soon be evicted from their building. In the following chapters, Mozley explores this central conflict by introducing us to an ensemble of six interconnected characters, each of whose chapters tell their personal part of a larger social narrative. In the social hierarchy of the ever-transforming urban area, they each occupy their own place, often leading to starkly conflicting interests.
How different from, and yet how similar Mozley’s latest novel is to her Booker-shortlisted debut Elmet (2017). Whereas the current novel tells a distinctly urban story, the York-raised author’s first novel centred on the darkness and violence of the Yorkshire countryside. Its name, ‘Elmet’, refers to an ancient Celtic kingdom, connecting the story to rural legendry. While thus opting for a drastically different setting and scale with Hot Stew — Soho covers a mere square mile — it is clear that Mozley’s writing is imbued with the idea of geography and the environment as shaping forces for her characters and the relations between them.
Like Elmet’s key conflict between a family and a wealthy group of landowners who threaten to disturb their peaceful rural life, Hot Stew follows the clash between the sex workers and real estate owner Agatha Howard, who intends to evict them to advance the process of gentrification in the area. In both novels this contestation over landownership and the permission to live and belong in a place engender strong resistance from those in danger of expulsion.
Although Elmet had more clearly defined ties to myth and legend, Hot Stew also reads like a folk tale, with apparently fairytale-esque character sketches and relations that seem to delineate archetypal roles of victim, perpetrator and saviour. Like two damsels in distress, Precious and Tabitha wait at the top of the tower marked for demolition, with Agatha as the comically typical capitalist antagonist (with her lavish lifestyle, she is vaguely reminiscent of Cruella de Vil). Wealthy Cambridge graduate Bastian fulfils the classic role of a prince stifled by his family’s expectations, desperate for an escape; and Robert lives a secluded life hiding his past as a hangman for Agatha’s late gang-leading father. Although Mozley maintains a strict black-and-white division between good and evil, we gradually discover that these characters may be more complex than we anticipated. Precious and Tabitha are portrayed in an empowered and humane way and won’t go down without a fight; cold and rigid Agatha is tormented by her alienation from her mother; and ultimately, we may be surprised by who turns out to be a hero in this tale.
The novel’s most curiously mythical characters are a man and woman nicknamed after celebrity magician couple Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, who live in an underground commune of addicts led by a man they reverently call ‘The Archbishop’. They are clouded in mystery: we know and discover very little detail about them throughout the novel, and their story is primarily told through a distant description of their actions. As Paul and the Archbishop are squabbling about the ownership of a crown they’d found, Debbie escapes through Soho’s underground tunnels and undergoes a complete metamorphosis in a luxurious abandoned spa. After getting clean there, she is able to re-join society as Cheryl Lavery, her real name.
Debbie’s magical transformation is indicative of Mozley’s argument about wealth, success, and inheritance in her novel. Oftentimes her characters’ place in society is a matter of luck: just as homeless Debbie one day happens to stumble upon the perfect environment to set her life straight, Agatha and Bastian were ‘accidentally’ born into families that provided the right circumstances for them to live wealthy and successful lives, and that will allow them to play key roles in society through law and finance.
At times, Mozley’s characters display self-awareness of this privilege. As Bastian reflects on the state of his relationship with his ambitious yet distant girlfriend, he says, as though there is an inevitability to his life: “They are from similarly wealthy backgrounds; they are likely to have similarly successful careers” (Mozley 80). Each of Mozley’s characters knows their place in the city’s social stratification and is aware of the sacrifices they must make to stay on top or move up, even if that means accepting jobs that make them question their own morality.
Mozley skilfully shows that the accumulation of wealth may not only require selling your own soul, but that it usually occurs at the expense of others, as shown by the corrupt and manipulative legalistic means that Agatha and her lawyers employ. Like punishers for Agatha’s sins, her estranged half-sisters (Agatha must consider them her ‘evil’ stepsisters) come knocking at her door demanding their share of their father’s criminally acquired inheritance, suggesting that anything not earned legitimately may just as easily be taken away. In the meantime, Paul and the Archbishop have beaten each other’s skulls in over the question of whose head may wear the crown, a poignant parallel cautionary tale of what might ensue with the introduction of such power differences in a community.
The starkest contrast in terms of morality and power occurs between the characters of Precious and Tabitha in opposition to Agatha Howard. From her descriptions of these characters, Mozley’s writing about women is clearly entrenched in contemporary feminist debates, condemning so-called girlboss feminism and applauding the emancipation of sex workers. While some may praise Agatha’s fulfilment of a traditionally masculine position as a corporate leader, Mozley shows that by entering this system Agatha becomes corrupted and even directly harms other women by threatening their livelihoods. While at first sight Agatha may be classified under the buzz label ‘strong female character’, she has no intention of further promoting female empowerment. Agatha only uses feminist talking points to push her own agenda: “From my perspective, as a woman concerned about the safety of other women, I wonder about trafficking. Sex trafficking.” (Mozley 112). She has no interest in the safety of sex workers, and is in fact actively hindering those who are working safely.
Yet in her addressing of the dark sides of corporate feminist tendencies, Mozley seems to rely on stereotypes once more and accidentally reverts into the trap of misogyny. Mozley’s treatment of Agatha shows that criticising certain strands of feminism must be done with exceptional care, to avoid scoring an own goal. For obvious reasons, Agatha is clearly the antagonist in this novel, yet her identity as an ambitious woman who must necessarily be cold and conniving itches. As a character Agatha is completely despicable, but did she also have to be placed in that tiring category of cruel, frigid, successful women?
Much more multifaceted and unexpected are Agatha’s counterparts, Precious and Tabitha. They are not defined by their occupation: they have sex to secure their livelihoods, but they are also curious about the world, with their conversations ranging from Elizabethan England to ownership over one’s own image in an online world. Central to Precious’ and Tabitha’s portrayal as sex workers is empowerment. This is evident from Precious’ explanation of her early relationship to sex: “Sometimes the sex was wonderful. Sometimes the sex was disappointing. But she always felt in control” (Mozley 66). The women work in a brothel, not controlled by pimps, where they are well-protected by guards. And from their humorous jabs at each other it is clear that these are women who are not to be pitied, as they are exactly where they want to be. Mozley particularly excels at portraying the love between Precious and Tabitha, showing what can be gained from mutual support between women.
Mozley’s clean, straightforward prose rapidly moves the story towards the inevitable clash between the different but interconnected worlds of her characters. The characters are painted with short, straight brushstrokes that effectively sketch out the different perspectives the reader is asked to engage with. Although the moral fault lines in the novel are evident, Mozley’s language notably does not judge her characters. While Mozley tells us how her characters think and feel, we are not told directly how we are supposed to feel about them. Instead, it is primarily through the characters’ dialogue, which is filled with subtle humour and irony that is apparently lost on its speakers, that the reader is guided towards a judgment of their worldviews and motivations. It seems that Mozley wants to let each of her characters speak for themselves and make their case, and by showing their true colours they will inevitably lead us to form our moral judgment.
With the novel’s engagement with the issues of social class, feminism, empowerment, and morality necessarily comes the question of whether Mozley might be trying to do too much with Hot Stew. Mozley is clearly aware of the prominent debates of contemporary society, and has the intellectual and lyrical ability to thoughtfully engage with them in a manner that is filled with sympathy for her characters that exist on society’s fringes. Furthermore, as an author trying to portray twenty-first century Soho, she cannot ignore the varied lives of its inhabitants and the forces that may threaten them. Yet with the six perspectives we are introduced to throughout the novel, even a skilled author like Mozley may struggle to fully excavate and develop each of their struggles. The story of struggling queer actor Lorenzo, for example, could have provided a stronger exploration of masculinity, but although he is granted his own chapters, his role remains mostly that of an extra who casually connects other characters through dinner dates and the like. It seems that Mozley’s ‘stew’ might thus have benefited from having fewer ingredients to truly do justice to each of them.
Ultimately, Hot Stew is a clever social novel that makes Mozley’s Soho feel like its own rich world. The many issues it raises intersect like streets on a map, showing that although each of the characters is vastly different, their lives are necessarily connected through geographical proximity. The novel’s obvious engagement with modern societal debates perhaps does not make exceptionally innovative points, but the figures with which Mozley personifies them, particularly Precious and Tabitha, are bound to evoke our empathy, and stay with us. They add a love and sympathy so strong that they are able to shine right through the darkness and grime of Soho.
Sara van der Woude is a postgraduate student of European Languages and Cultures at the University of Groningen and is currently doing the MA Literature Today at Utrecht University. She is writing her master’s thesis on the experience of detachment in millennial women’s literature, which reflects her general research interest in the relationship between literature and societal issues. As co-head of the RevUU editorial section, she is excited to help develop new critical voices.
- Mozley, Fiona. Hot Stew. John Murray, 2021.