Hot Stew is the second novel by Fiona Mozley whose debut novel, Elmet was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
Hot Stew is a wonderful ode to London’s Soho providing a sharp social analysis of life in a modern metropolis. The book tackles the issues of gentrification, social class, stigmatisation, poverty, privilege, London’s housing crisis, the meaning of home, the relation between one’s identity and the place as well as the feeling of alienation and displacement.
Readers are introduced to the plethora of various characters representing complex and diverse society as well as to the rich and vibrant history of London’s Soho.
Soho is centrally located, former RLD (red light district) of London. Roughly form the 18th century until the 1980s it was considered a hot spot of the UK’s underworld. it was a centre of London’s erotic industry, with many sexually oriented businesses, often associated with exploitation, trafficking, drugs, and notorious crime scene. However, it is also worth noting that for many decades Soho has been a welcoming place offering home to the immigrants, outcasts, and those living on the peripheries of the society.
Hot Stew evokes a very strong sense of place, with many references to the real places one can locate in this central London district. Soho is portrayed as a separate character, playing an integral role in the lives of all the characters and as a place with its own complex and nuanced personality. Soho is a place of greed, viciousness, and ugliness but also of compassion, community spirit, long-term friendships, sometimes happiness covered in a veil of permanent nostalgia. Soho and its residents have created a sort of symbiotic relationship – they are separate organisms containing each other. One cannot exist without the other.
Hot Stew delivers such a nuanced multi-layered commentary on the social and economic issues experienced by many residents of the contemporary London, from lower- and often middle- income background in relation to housing, inequality, identity, and alienation. For some characters, Soho is a place of an opportunity and privilege like in the case of Agatha, her mother Anastasia and Roster, but for many others like Cheryl, Tabitha, and Precious, although Soho constitutes an integral if not essential part of their identity, their presence there seems to be imposed more by the life circumstances, social and economic reasons than by a free choice.
The identity of the characters in the book is strictly connected to the place – Soho which is a fundamental ingredient in the mixture that creates the identity of all the characters portrayed in Hot Stew.
In Hot Stew, we are introduced to many diverse characters. The ones that stood out for me were two older sex workers, Tabitha and Precious who were from the immigrant backgrounds. They have been Soho’s long-term residents whose livelihood became affected by the urban developments caused by gentrification process. For them Soho is the place they call home, they do not exist without Soho, but it is also fair to say that Soho does not exist without them. Leaving Soho would result in the loss of their identity, as well as their social network, stigmatisation, physical relocation, no sense of belonging, and emotional displacement. The author portrayed them in such a humane, complex manner, without any pathos. There are no simplifications nor generalisations. They are described with their own unique experiences, opinions, vices, and dreams.
Hot Stew was a delightful read, with a thoughtful commentary on the modern life in a big city such as London.
I believe that this book can be enjoyed not only by the ones familiar with London’s Soho but also by anyone remotely interested in the experience of living in a modern metropolis.
As a curiosity, the pictures of Soho that I am sharing in this post were taken by me over the Easter weekend. You can see on some of them new modern buildings replacing the older architecture, as well as chain shops and luxury flats replacing independent traders and iconic music venues of Soho, similarly to how it was portrayed in Hot Stew.
Thank you Tandem Collective UK and John Murray Publishing House for this wonderful gifted advanced copy of Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley.