It’s been well over four years since I reviewed The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan’s last novel, a rare dip into dystopian fiction for me but Fagan’s the kind of author whose work I’d make a beeline for, regardless of the genre she’d chosen. Her new novel, Luckenbooth, is entirely different, spinning the stories of the inhabitants of a many-floored Edinburgh tenement over nine decades, beginning with the arrival of the devil’s daughter in 1910.
Fresh from murdering her father, Jessie MacRae is on her way to an assignment as a surrogate for the minster of culture and his fiancée, Elise, at No 10 Luckenbooth Close. She needs the money, putting up with Mr Udman’s unpleasant demands and conscious of the horns steadily growing from her forehead. Within hours she’s given birth to Hope who arrives with her own set of nubs and is delivered by Elise. Jessie finds herself incapable of leaving her child, protecting her beloved Elise from Udman’s frequent beatings. That violence is fatally turned on all three but not before Jessie curses Udman and the building he owns. Theirs is a story that will reverberate down the decades impinging on the lives of Luckenbooth’s tenants in a multitude of ways, from a medium struck dumb by the plight of the spirits who manifest themselves to a little girl’s imaginary friends and their tea parties. At the turn of the millennium, a young homeless woman makes a discovery and the death watch beetles finish the job they began back in the ‘70s.
It is entirely possible to slip through the decades in between these floors. Travel forward or back in time.
Such a synopsis fails miserably to do justice to this richly imaginative slice of gothic which spins stories within stories, many laced with a dark dry humour. Fagan divides her novel into three parts, each telling the tale of three tenants over three decades, all knitted together by the spirits of Jessie, Elise and Hope, sometimes manifest, sometimes mere fleeting glimpses. Her characters’ stories range from the flamboyantly gothic to gangland crime to William Burroughs’ visit to his lover who lives in Luckenbooth Close. Many share the theme of men’s abuse of power, whether it be in their treatment of women, their position in the world or both, but occasionally the tables are turned and it ends with an assertion of hope through resistance. All this is played out against the backdrop of an Edinburgh so vividly evoked it’s almost a character in itself. Impossible to adequately describe this extraordinarily inventive novel. You’ll just have to read it yourself. Early days, I know, but suffice to say this one’s already heading for my books of the year list together with both my Women’s Prize for Fiction and Booker Prize wish lists.
Cornerstone: London 9780434023318 352 pages Hardback