Jenni Fagan

William Heinemann, £16.99

Review by Dani Garavelli

AT the beginning of Luckenbooth – Jenni Fagan’s much-anticipated third novel – Jessie MacRae, daughter of the devil, sails into the Water of Leith in a coffin. Her horns hidden in a tumult of hair, she walks along Constitution Street towards a city that is dark and unheimlich; a city populated by beggars, glowering gargoyles and men of the cloth who swoop down the High Street like crows. The year is 1910, but it is an Edinburgh Kidnapped’s David Balfour would instantly recognise: a place of hubbub, and of tenements, both multi-storeyed and multi-storied, “standing sentinel” around the Tron.

In recent years, Edinburgh has plied a trade as a backdrop for the crime novels of Ian Rankin and others. But Fagan plays up the city’s Gothic traits to produce an instant classic. Suffused with dread, Luckenbooth is a perverse love song to its castle and its catacombs; its plague victims and its Presbyterianism; its hedonism and its haar.

The ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson stalks its narrative wynds. Deacon Brodie – respectable cabinet maker by day/housebreaker by night – is the inspiration for Luckenbooth’s villain Mr Udnam just as he was for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Fagan acknowledges the debt. She has Flora – a trans woman at a sex party – remind us that Stevenson’s most famous novel was written during a six-day cocaine binge. And Luckenbooth possesses that same frenetic energy; the same fever-dream quality found in her debut, The Panoptican, about a teenage girl in care. It is as if all the images in Fagan’s head are engaged in a breathless, deathless race on to the page. References to Hitler, druids, pagans and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse snap at each other’s heels. Witches and assassins, madams and mediums jostle for their place in a universe which, while anchored in a familiar geographical/literary landscape, moves to its own wild beat.

The Luckenbooth of the title – No 10 Luckenbooth to be precise – is a nine-storey building in the heart of the Old Town. It is named after the lockable booths for traders – luckenbuiths – which stood nearby, but a luckenbooth is also a silver brooch sometimes worn to ward off witches. This is ironic because the tenement is cursed. Jessie has been sold as a surrogate mother to wealthy landlord Mr Udnam’s baby. The atrocity that follows works its way into the fabric of the building, rising like damp through its floors, infecting its eccentric residents over the course of almost 90 years.

Fagan’s conjuring of the tenement is an incredible feat. She creates a literary Windows in the West, providing fleeting glimpses of self-contained worlds: a man at his piano; a parrot flying round a room. But more than that, she captures the ebb and flow of humanity, the way we weave in and out of each others’ lives, barely touching.

There are the daily routines: “A kettle whistle goes on a stove on the fourth floor each day at 7am, 11am, 1pm and then again at 3pm,” Levi, a black American, who works in the Royal Dick veterinary building, writes to his brother in 1939. But there is also a fluidity, an overlapping of existence; the living moving in tandem with the dead. Leitmotifs create connections. Jessie has a cage around her heart made of “bone, bone, bone”, Levi sorts animal bones “numerically by size and species”, and the tenement has access to the vaults where body-snatchers Burke and Hare once wheeled their victims’ bodies.

Occasionally, the scenes feel out of kilter with the time in which they are set. Perhaps a character speaks in a manner that seems too contemporary; or a particular event evokes a different era. The louche party that takes place in Flat 2F2 in 1928 seems to foreshadow the Rose Street poetry scene of the 1950s. But such incongruities add to the sense of slippage; as if everything within the building – tenancies, morals, time – are both shifting and part of a continuum. “For hundreds of years, people have been going round and round the stairwell like the cogs of a clock,” Jessie says, “past, present and future passing each other by.”

Like all great Gothic works, Luckenbooth deals in duality: good/evil, light/dark. The more sins Mr Udman commits, the more philanthropic he becomes. Jessie has her father’s horns, but stands up against the landlord. Flora has changed from male to female, but is still caught in a biological trap. Copious mind-altering drugs are consumed and sex is had in an impressive range of numerical/gender combinations.

This duality extends to the setting. Fagan builds on the idea of there being two Edinburghs, “one above ground and one below, one in the centre and one on the outskirts”. This duality can be thrilling. “Sometimes the sky races in such a way it seems there are two skies from two different worlds entirely – rushing at each other in opposite directions, layers of cloud and dark moodiness,” Levi writes.

The lust extends to the setting, too. Fagan comes at Edinburgh like a voracious lover, eager to explore both its conspicuous beauty and its secret places. She runs the gamut of its sinister hotspots: Greyfriars Kirkyard, the execution site on the Grassmarket, the notorious Pubic Triangle. But that is not enough. She wants us to see the city from every angle, in every light, so she sends Flora up the Salisbury Crags. At sunset “they look like they are on fire,” Flora says. “The entire thing turns rose gold.”

From the top she can see the “whole city skyline sparkle before her”. Just as in The Sunlight Pilgrims – which features a frozen dystopian near-future in the Highlands – Fagan’s writing sparkles most when she is describing landscape. But she also crams Luckenbooth full of legends. She tells of Robert the Bruce’s heart, cut out so it could be taken to the Holy Land, and of Baska Murmanska, the polar bear mascot of a First World War Polish battalion, led through Leith by war-weary soldiers. Now and then, she tries too hard, and the stories begin to stack up like supermarket BOGOFs; but mostly her vivid descriptions keep everything fresh.

Luckenbooth is a horror story, originally and beautifully told. But it is also a paean to the city Hugh MacDiarmid described as a “mad God’s dream”. This quote is the book’s epigraph, and Fagan serves it well. Indeed, so fully has she fleshed out MacDiarmid’s vision, she may have ruined Edinburgh as a location for Gothic novelists for many years to come.