Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2022

Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley

I came across this book via a #6Degrees chat about Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet which I really liked. It prompted me to look for Hot Stew at the library…

Like Elmet, Hot Stew explores themes of class, gentrification, inheritance and political activism, but in an entirely different milieu.  Hot Stew is set in rapidly gentrifying Soho and the focus is on the impending destruction of a community of sex workers and other marginalised people. And while Elmet showed that love within families can, to some extent, make social injustice endurable, Hot Stew shows that love comes within different kinds of families and relationships.

It is the kind of novel that will divide readers.  It invites criticism from some for being crudely simplistic about wicked property developers and the evils of capitalism, and for its non-judgemental representation of sex workers as part of the service industry.  OTOH, sex workers may not like the comic representation of their work, and activists probably don’t like the way the portrayal of protest as haphazard social events undermines their seriousness of intent.  There is even some commentary about politically incorrect gardening…

There are also weeds: unwanted interlopers.  There are dandelions, daisies, clover, moss.  They infiltrate the pristine lawn Jackie and Keith set down when they bought the house: strips of turf rolled up like sacred scrolls, laid side by side to stitch themselves together over that first summer.

Jackie wages war on weeds.  She wages war with a miniature pitchfork, secateurs and chemical weapons.  She hoes, she scarifies, she pulls weeds from between the patio stones with clenched fists before they have time to settle.  She rips, tears, snips, swears. (p.94)

But this is a metaphor for the savagery of the way the unwanted are removed from gentrified places, with any weapons that work, regardless of the harm they cause.

There’s a striking scene involving the supercilious Agatha, who inherited her vast wealth from her crime boss father who invested in property.  He disinherited his other daughters in her favour because he thought she was going to be a male heir, but #schadenfreude! he died before she was born.  This unearned wealth has made her judgemental and elitist:

Agatha takes the dog out early to avoid the kinds of people who walk their dogs after 9 a.m. She would like to avoid all other dog walkers but, in London, this is impossible, and she read that puppies need to be socialised, so it’s a good idea to allow Fedor to meet others of his kind.  If he is to encounter dogs, she must encounter dog walkers.  In her experience, the ones who emerge before 9 a.m. are preferable to the ones who emerge after 9 a.m.  The former are the kinds of people who get up early and get on with their days, and have things to do — jobs, etc.  They’re hard-working, disciplined people and their approach to their dogs is similar.  People who walk their dogs after 9 a.m. are slovenly.  They’re not likely to have jobs or commitments, and they’re likewise lax in their approach to their animals.  Whenever Fedor gets into scraps with other dogs, it is after 9 a.m.  Agatha has decided this is no coincidence.  (p.98)

But on a morning when she herself has slept in, and Fedor is now a huge full grown Borzoi (a.k.a a Russian hunting dog, bred to pursue rabbits, foxes and wolves), the dog gets into ‘a scrap’ with a Yorkshire terrier, leaving its owner in tears.  Agatha is unmoved:

Then the Yorkshire terrier’s owner panics, and he begins to shout.  He has a thick accent from a part of the country Agatha hasn’t visited, and she can’t make out what he is saying.  She has never been shouted at by a complete stranger before.  She has very little interaction with what she would call ‘members of the public’, and she has still less experience of this manner of incident.  She recoils a little but is otherwise immobile.  (p.102)

Are we meant to like a character who doesn’t care about old men and their little dogs?  No, we’re not.  It’s not subtle, and it’s not meant to be. This scene is a clear indication that she isn’t going to care about the residents of the apartment block that she intends to demolish.

However…

Agatha has formidable rivals in the characters of Precious and Tabitha, previously content to live their lives together on the top floor, where they have a secret rooftop garden and Tabitha deters the snails with crushed snail shells that she recycles from the restaurant downstairs.  But the threat to their home and community rouses them to activism and Precious, whose career trajectory went from qualified midwife in Nigeria to beauty technician in Britain and then the sex trade, turns out to be an effective activist.

Other residents include a group of misfits abandoned by mental health services, and then there are clients of the sex workers, an actor working in a very dubious TV series which shows how viewers have become desensitised to violence against women, and the residue of Agatha’s father’s gangland operatives.

The ending is very surprising indeed, even though there are warning signs throughout the text that the reader, like the authorities, tends to dismiss until afterwards when it becomes obvious what would happen.

Hot Stew has been nominated for the 2022 Dylan Thomas prize for literary works in English by authors aged less than 39.  The other nominations are:

  • A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Hogarth) (on my TBR
  • What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree Bailey (Yale University Press)
  • Keeping the House by Tice Cin (And Other Stories), see Kim’s review at Reading Matters
  • Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (Faber)
  • The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (Little, Brown)
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead) , see Theresa Smith’s review
  • Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz (Grove)
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (Algonquin)
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Black Cat)
  • Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (Little, Brown)
  • Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)
  • Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)

Author: Fiona Mozley
Title: Hot Stew
Publisher: John Murray (Hachette), 2021
ISBN: 9781529327212, pbk., 311 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I wonder if there’s a place anywhere that gentrification is not an issue right now. This sounds definitely worth a read.
    I love the idea of a secret rooftop garden!

    Like

    • It’s certainly an issue where I live. I’m not opposed to development: there are countless refugees needing homes and we have the capacity to offer them residence, but the developments need to be well-managed, they should be situated where there is infrastructure to support them, they shouldn’t destroy existing communities and young people shouldn’t be priced out of home ownership by investors.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hahah. This reminds me of my undergrad degree, where the town planning lectures focussed on the great aspects of gentrification (cleaning up places, making them nicer, boosting wealth and opportunities ) and the sociology lectures which would decry gentrification because of its negative aspects on people who get forced out.

    Interesting to see the list of other books nominated for this prize. I abandoned the Lockwood and I found the Tice problematic.

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    • Indeed, I quite liked gentrification in my suburb when people were renovating the 1950s houses and making them really nice, but I don’t like it so much when they demolish them and built box-like town houses!
      I didn’t know much about this prize… did you review the Tice?

      Like

      • Trouble is that we all have different wishes and perspectives don’t we? In the ideal world, I like the idea of renovating the old, but the world isn’t ideal and maybe not all houses can be usefully renovated? I don’t love box like townhouses, but I think the odd small town house complex or duplex, boxy if that’s the current “look”, in the suburbs is better than losing our suburbs to large apartment complexes. The real problem about gentrification though is the pushing out of people who have lived there forever and can no longer afford the rates, and who, perhaps no longer fit into the new lifestyles. All so challenging, isn’t it? Anyhow, this book sounds interesting.

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        • You are so right, I’m glad I don’t have to be part of any decision-making about the process.
          In an ideal world we wouldn’t see vulnerable people having to live in unsafe buildings that ought to be condemned…

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  3. Yea, I reviewed the Tice and you commented that it didn’t interest you seeing as it’s about drug culture: https://readingmattersblog.com/2021/12/06/keeping-the-house-by-tice-cin/

    Like

  4. Thanks for the link!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read the paragraph about people who walks their dogs after 9am and thought, Ouch! So much for retirees…

    One of the major issues with gentrification is the production of homogenous communities. I do prefer those with a mix of, say, young people sharing houses, renters, pensioners et al, together with established home owners, otherwise I think homogeneity can breed intolerance. Plus a mix is more interesting!

    Sounds like a curious book, I must take a look at it!

    Like

    • Yes, that’s what I like, a mix of young and old, different ethnicities and a diversity of incomes.

      Like

      • I just got chatting with a nice couple from a leafy garden suburb in Sydney and they said the gracious older homes were being bought up and replaced by big dark cement boxes Lisa. I saw your comment about this above!
        I have put a reserve on this book at the library, I’m looking forward to reading it! It might take my mind off the Ukraine briefly…

        Like

        • I’ve got a few friends who are nostalgic about the gracious older homes…
          but they don’t want to live in them, or if they do, they want to modernise them!
          My parents’ Queen Anne house in Caulfield is a case in point. So far, it survives in a sea of boxes, because a couple of gays bought it and did a wonderful extension bringing light and space into the rear of the house while retaining the features of the old in the front. (You can see it here: https://tinyurl.com/45zsbkj6)
          But the last time it sold it went for an astronomical price, which means that subdivided it will double in value. So its days are numbered….

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          • It looks lovely Lisa and that is the sort of home I love – attractive and with some character. It’s such a shame to lose them. Where I grew up in Epping we were surrounded by the lovely old Californian bungalows with leadlight windows, but I’ve heard they are getting demolished now too. I could weep!

            Like

            • This is why it’s best not to go back. I have memories of my grandmother’s house in London, a lovely old three storey house with a garden front and back, and when I went back there on my first trip back to England, it was the opposite of gentrified, neglected, run down, and depressing. Very sad.

              Like

              • Yes I’ve had a similar experience, it’s better to just keep the memory Lisa! I just had a bit of a look down the street your parent’s house is in, and it does seem to be dwarfed by the surrounding blocky houses that take up most of the land they are on.

                We have some rows of lovely old terrace houses left here, with shady verandahs in front – I don’t know why we stopped building them – they are elegant, comfortable, and mid-density, with a courtyard garden at the back. The people who live in them love them!

                Like

                • Yes, the street there has been subject to a *lot* of development.
                  There is, however, a good reason for it. The street is within walking distance of the most orthodox synagogue in Melbourne, and when I lived there as a teenager, about one third of the houses were homes for Holocaust survivors who built two-storey houses, downstairs for them and upstairs for the next generation’s family. As they were getting older and more frail, being close to the synagogue and the support of their families was really important.
                  Most of the houses that were replaced, were old turn-of-the-century weatherboards, usually in very poor condition.

                  Like

  6. I’m already behind on her work, and yet remain convinced that I’m going to wholly enjoy her, when I finally get to reading it. What you’ve said convinces me further.

    And, as an aside, I have personal experience of someone who gardens with that kind of vehemence, and it really does seem to extend to that worldview in their case too.

    Like

    • Domestic gardening as a symbol of character!

      Like

  7. I’ve tried doing battle with the weeds that get blown in from my neighbour’s garden but it’s one I’m never going to win unless I’m prepared to blitz the garden with powerful chemicals every few months. I can’t bring myself to do that so the dandelions and buttercups reign supreme

    Like

    • I hear you. We have an annoyingly beautiful blue vine called Morning Glory which snakes into ours from theirs and winds itself around our grape vine and our citrus trees. It is lovely to look at but treacherous, and #snap the only way to deal with it permanently is with chemicals we don’t want to use. So I’m not totally ruthless either!

      Like

      • I’m chuckling because I was looking at some seed packets in the garden centre today (we’r going to be doing a sale of seedlings in our village) and was debating morning glory because it’s so easy for kids to see grow. Nothing on the packet that warns it’s a bully!

        Like

        • Maybe it’s not, in a cooler climate.
          Did you know that oak trees here grow noticeably more quickly than in the UK? They discovered that in the C19th when they planted them in our botanic gardens which has a magnificent oak garden. See here: https://tinyurl.com/2cmv74jx

          Like

  8. I’m glad to hear that Elmet was great, I just got it in French through my Kube subscription.

    Poor Agatha, life is so dull when everyone is the same around you and you waste your energy on weeds.

    Like


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