There’s a scene near the end of Hot Stew, Fiona Mozley’s new novel of inner London life, which sums up my own relationship with the city — and perhaps that of many other long-term residents.

Lorenzo, an actor, is drinking in The Aphra Behn, the Soho pub where he’s been a regular for years. And he doesn’t like what he sees. “He watches the new pub patrons, and wonders about their lives. He feels irritated by how much the Behn has changed, and resolves never to come here again, although he knows he probably will, that he’ll learn to put up with the changes and then he will forget about them, and forget how the pub used to be and forget about the people who used to come here.”

Hot Stew is set in Soho — the book’s title comes from an old word for brothels — a district, like all of the capital’s villages, both timeless and ever-shifting. That’s how Londoners like it. Or, as with Lorenzo in the pub, we must at least accept and put up with our city’s mutable nature.

Mozley, whose debut novel Elmet was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker prize, is adept at detailing this tricksy duality. Hot Stew, with its inner-city setting, seems a fitting follow-up to Elmet — a tale of deep rural life centred on a strange family who live in the woods.

In Hot Stew we meet Precious and Tabitha, sex workers clinging on to the old ways in Soho when most of that business has moved to the suburbs. From early on in the novel, the ground beneath their home is also shifting, the tremors seemingly caused by a “new underground line being built, deep beneath the earth.” This is Crossrail, the real-world project whose enormous crater on the edge of Soho has already sucked up some of its landmarks and replaced them with a vast underground station.

It’s clear there will be more earthquakes to come in Hot Stew, both above and below ground, as these old residents fight for the survival of their way of life. Their enemy is Agatha Howard, youngest daughter and sole heir of a dead and very dodgy billionaire. She’s perhaps the best-drawn character in a book that’s full of them: a crisply-drawn outsider, young, half-Russian and finely attuned to the snubs of the posh men who advise her.

Agatha owns vast amounts of property in Soho and the central plot driver is her plan to “blank slate” it. This means clearing properties by evicting tenants and “employing a fashionable architect to redesign them from the inside out” so they can be let to richer, more desirable people.

On the street corner at the centre of Mozley’s story, Agatha aims to remove the old-fashioned French restaurant on the ground floor and the sex workers from their (implausibly idyllic) brothel above, where the sheets are from John Lewis and the trafficked girls in the suburbs are something that Precious and Tabitha don’t like to think about.

Beneath the streets, there’s yet another group of people who risk being displaced by Agatha’s ruthlessness, or the earth rumblings, or both. They are led by a man known as the Archbishop, who presides over those “who came to squat with him in his underground palace like dozens had before them. Most who stayed were addicted to something, or half mad, like him.”

Mozley’s writing often takes on a lyrical, almost fairytale quality — there’s a whiff of the immortal about the Archbishop and his apocalyptic ramblings. “The earth hasn’t quaked since the dragons last woke. Since the red and the white dragon came from the mouth of the river and swept over the city.” There’s even a myth-in-the-making, a descent into the underworld by a resident of the Archbishop’s “palace”, Cheryl Lavery. After six months spent living the subterranean high life, with a swimming pool, a kitchen-full of food and films in the home cinema, Cheryl (known as Debbie McGee, because her boyfriend “Paul Daniels” performs card tricks for cash) re-emerges into the light at the climax of the novel in something like a resurrection. “She looks renewed. Her skin is bright and shining.”

Hot Stew’s many separate strands and characters are linked in both explicit and less obvious ways. Some of this is very clever and some of it is a bit clunky, even worthy. No matter — the story moves so quickly, and ranges so widely, that there is no time to dwell — either as a reader or in this review.

The novel climaxes in a single violent afternoon that has been prefigured by the rumblings throughout the novel. It’s one ending, but London is never finished. Much later, when Precious travels by bus to a public inquiry into the events of that day, “she sees London whirling past like a magic lantern”. It’s a wonderful image, and one that sums up Mozley’s messy, fantastical vision of this beloved city.

Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley, John Murray, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

Isabel Berwick is the FT’s work and careers editor

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