“An exuberant, raucous book” – Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

It’s 1910 in Leith, and Jessie MacRae, the devil’s daughter, has just rowed to town in a coffin. Her recently deceased dad has sold her to Mr Udnam, a wealthy tenement landlord who plans to impregnate her and keep the child for himself and his fiancé. But, hey, the best laid plans, right? Not only is Mr Udnam appalled by his new daughter, Hope (who’s inherited her grandfather’s horns), but Jessie and the fiancé, Elise, fall in love. No spoilers, of course, but everything does rather go wrong from there… Udnam’s building, No. 10 Luckenbooth Close, ends up under a powerful curse, and the novel weaves together the stories of its unfortunate inhabitants over the subsequent ninety years.

Luckenbooth is, then, a multi-stranded text, tracing the lives of nine floors’ worth of residents, and while its intertwined sections certainly build together towards a satisfying climax, they operate also as discrete accounts of Edinburgh and Leith society as the twentieth century limps ever onwards. And we’re not talking polite society: if you think Jessie’s story is wild, well, the book is only getting started at that point. The Luckenbooth house is home, too, to a (sort of) vampire, a (definite) medium, a WWII spy, not to mention some rogue Triad agents. And that’s not even the lot. What Fagan’s offering us is a cross-section of underground Scottish life – between 1910 and 1999, we’ve got everything from a drag ball and orgy to a suave quartet of fancy-dressed assassins. But it doesn’t stop at celebrating kink and desire (and righteous retribution led by kick-ass women); Luckenbooth is also a scathing take-down of the class system. Udnam, our tenement landlord, is a model capital-C conservative capitalist, tossing money about to hide his corruption – and in this case, of course, his corruption is bound up with that of the devil himself. So what we’ve got here is weird fiction as social critique: the supernatural meets James Kelman with a hearty dose of feminist-socialist outrage. While everyone from Hitler to Thatcher gets a thorough excoriation, one stand-out area of concern for pretty much all the characters is the state of public housing and welfare: unregulated slumlords, unscrupulous housing associations and a benefits system rigged against the poor. The Edinburgh we’re shown here isn’t the tourist attraction we’re used to; rather, it’s a gloriously dark collage of the back streets and dodgy bars (complete with underage dancers) and shitty housing that actually make a city: Fagan’s showing us the (problematic) growth of an industrial city in fast-motion, and the love and rage of the people that live there.

Any Cop?:  Luckenbooth’s an exuberant, raucous book – folk horror mixed with political critique, and queer as hell, to boot. If you liked Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis and you’ve got a soft spot for the collected works of Rosie Garland, you’ll get on very well here.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 

 

 

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