Monday 17 January 2022

Book Review: Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Luckenbooth Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read Jenni Fagan's other two novels, The Panopticon and The Sunlight Pilgrims and I have her fourth Hexon order and I am a growing fan. With Luckenbooth I believe she is finding her narrative voice particularly with the core of the story, namely that of Jessie MacRae, the Devil's daughter, sold into surrogacy. It is when telling the story of Jessie, Elsie and their daughter Hope that a wonderfuly gothic ghost story leaps of the page in such a vivid way it will have to be made into a movie sometime very soon, I hope.

The book is set in, and is in many ways a love story about, Edinburgh but one told with the a mix of the grittty realism of Scotland's post-Trainspotting generation with the classic ghost tales and folklore of a nation and its historical and fictional horrors. For those of you who do not know the city , under its South Bridge lie vaults rediscovered in the mid 1980s which had been used at various points in time as tradesmans workshops, merchants storage, gambling dens, illegal whisky gins, drug havens and homeless hangouts. They are reportedly haunted.

There stands No.10 Luckenbooth Close, a traditonal Edinburgh Tenement with multiple flats/apartments over several floors, around a common stairwell, owned by the childless businessman Mr Udnam. It has been occupied by various families over the years and it is those people and their flat numbers which give the book its important 3 part structure , 3 Parts/ sections by time and within each of these 3 characters's stories told in 3 parts -

Part 1 set 1910 - 1939
Flat1F1 Jessie MacRae (the Devil's daughter) , Flat 2F2Flora ( a chimeric hermaphrodite) , Flat 3F3 Levi ( an African American working with bones in Edinburgh's famous Royal School of Veterinary Studies or as it is more commonly called the 'Dick Vet' ;

Part 2 set 1944 to 1963
Flat 4F4 Ivy Proudfoot (about to embark on being a 'Night Witch' with SOE), Flat 5F5 Agnes Campell (spiritual medium) , Flat 6F6 William Burroughs (the writer);

Part 3 set 1977 - 1999
Flat 7F7 Queen Bee ( gangster, mother, leader of the fictional 'Original Founders'), Flat 8F8 Ivor ( the phengophobic miner unable to do daylight work now the mines have gone), Flat9F9 Dot (daughter of the city).

These characters' stories are a mixture of purely fictional and real people explored in a fictional way within factual and historical detail eg William Burrough did visit Edinburgh, the Baska Murmanska polar bear, Nora Noyce was a famous Edinburgh 'madam', the Pubic Triangle is a real area of the city.

I loved this structure which reflects the building, its layers/levels spatially and temporally. After all it is the building that gives the book its title , this is a tale about the building, but like the building many tales lie within it, all linked to the life of the building and the lives in it linked by the march of the deathwatch beetles and their tap, tap tap as the building is slowly eaten away and the sound of the 'cloven hooves' of approaching death, all hanging round the central thread of the story of Jessie, Elsie Udnam and their daughter Flora and what happened to them from Jessie arrival to the final demise of both building and its final occupant.

Fagan's feminist perspective and Scotland's political history is also played out in the context - powerful corrupt men who fear and silence women get their cumupence. My favorite lines have to be in the final chapter ****SPOILER ALERT **** 'Edinburgh’s daughters – will not stay walled in.'

One reviewer of Luckenbooth, Lauren Beakes in the NYT , signed off her review with 'Stories can be like a house, somewhere you can inhabit for a while. The best kind leave behind a room inside you. For me that truly sums this book up.

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