Fiction Reviews


Luckenbooth

(2021) Jenni Fagan, William Heinemann, £16.99, hrdbk, 338pp, ISBN 978-0-434-02331-8

 

This novel offers a series of interconnected short stories taking place over a century in the apartment flats of a crumbling Edinburgh tower block called Number 10, Luckenbooth Close. Events from one story in one flat ripple out through time to have often terrible consequences for later residents in other apartments.

The narrative is not a linear one, as events in Flat 1F1 in 1910 are returned to after chapters involving Flat 3F3 in 1939. The story ultimately goes up to 1999 with activity in Flat 9F9.

A major connecting thread is the Devilís daughter, who murders her father and rows his coffin to Edinburgh, before taking residence in the block, trying to suppress her demonic origins in a passionate Sapphic love affair with another tenant. Her relationship draws great ire from her homophobic landlord, with dreadful consequences that will span the twentieth century.

Erotic dark fantasy with many subtle surprises. Edgar Allan Poe The House Of Usher (1939) air of crumbling facade echoes the disintegration of the characters as the work progresses.

With 1963ís Flat 6F6 tenant being the Beat poet and novelist William Burroughs (who really was in Edinburgh at that time), it is not surprising that this book is filled with poetic and symbolic imagery, such as a woman actively suppressing the horns growing on her head.

Ultimately, it is Faganís supercharged evocation of Edinburgh that lifts Luckenbooth way above the average. Many books set in a known given city could easily be set in another, but Fagan makes her gloomy noir-ish decaying Edinburgh so alive that it becomes impossible to think of this novel going on anywhere else. It is a shattered city of ghosts and secrets (there are ghosts in the novel), but the writerís love for Scotland shines through the darkness like a beacon, giving the narrative an underlying subtle air of optimism despite its bleak visions. The city and the brickwork of 10, Luckenbooth itself are as much characters in the book as Burroughs and the daughter of the Devil himself. The events of the 20th century permeate and impact on the very fabric of the building, especially the World Wars.

The word 'Luckenbooth' has two meanings. In Edinburgh it meant a securable lockable market stall, often used by late eighteenth, early nineteenth century jewellers and goldsmiths. The word also came to apply to broaches made and sold in such booths and marketed as love talismans and protective good luck amulets for warding off evil.

The uber-Gothic Luckenbooth tower in the story is seen as a crumbling relic where such hidden secrets, dreams, love and secure protection are at risk of breaking down in despair, bloodshed, horror and destruction. A book to savour and reflect on for a lifetime.

The work defies expectations, with its unforgettable opening leading the reader to think The Devilís Daughter will prove even more evil than her father, but her valiant efforts to change her nature leaves her utterly and tragically unprepared for the evils inflicted on her. A sense of eternal retribution permeates everything that follows.

Arthur Chappell

 


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