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A Gothic Novel Haunted by Nine Lives Over Nine Decades

By Jenni Fagan

Cities are, by their very nature, haunted places, Edinburgh perhaps more than most. A million lives, a million stories crisscross these streets, invisible psychogeographies built up in layers of memory and history ripe for excavation. In her new novel, “Luckenbooth,” Jenni Fagan traces the lives of nine “ootlins,” or outsiders: artists and dreamers, queers and mystics and vagabonds, criminals and cutups, winding upstairs and down in the doomed tenement block of the title. The result is a cabinet of curiosities that is both a love letter to the Scottish capital, and a knife to its throat.

On a dreary day in 1910, the Devil’s daughter binds her horns to hide them and sets sail for the city in a boat made from a coffin. Jessie MacRae, 21, has been sold as a surrogate to the morally bankrupt minister of culture, Mr. Udnam. The revelation of her true nature results in a murder that will haunt all the occupants of 10 Luckenbooth over the course of nine decades.

The structure — three parts divided into three interwoven stories — is a nod to Wicca’s rule of three, and it’s appropriate then to explore the novel through the three meanings of “luckenbooth.”

Lucken-buith was the word for Edinburgh’s original lockup shops selling silver and jewelry. Each story is a gleaming gem, and the writing is gorgeous and tender and reckless, like the skies over Edinburgh that reflect the shifting conditions of the heart: “Black clouds race like warhorses pounding the sky. Pink electric lightning splits the darkness. Luminous clouds roll under darker ones above.”

Like a magpie, Fagan picks the shiniest details from history that will have you Googling between chapters: a polar bear called Baska Murmanska that paraded with the Polish regiment just after World War I, Britain’s Witchcraft Act, the infamous International Writers’ Conference of 1962, a real-life ’70s gang who dressed in masks à la “A Clockwork Orange,” the notorious madam Dora Noyce.

Credit…via Jenni Fagan

A luckenbooth also refers to a distinctively Scottish love totem, and a talisman against the evil eye, featuring two intertwined hearts worn as a brooch or a necklace — as many of the characters (and, indeed, the author) wear their own, bloody and defiant. There’s glorious intersex Flora seeking love at a drag ball in 1928; the teenage Nazi-killer-in-training, Ivy Proudfoot, set on vengeance in 1944; and William Burroughs in 1963, tangled in his lover’s arms and the thrall of drugs, holding forth on cosmic rays and the “virus” of language.

As an outsider herself, raised in the abusive care system, Fagan (“The Panopticon,” “The Sunlight Pilgrims”) has a ferocious empathy for her ootlins and their struggles in a society that rejects and oppresses them. “The policymakers have much to answer for,” she writes, “deaths and ruins all on their soft pink fingers.”

Occasionally, her characters feel slightly too modern in their thinking, too prescient of the world to come, as when Ivy muses that “life is a series of ever-smaller lassoes thrown by the thought police,” or when Flora ponders the very specific Labouchère Amendment of 1885 “to protect girls from prostitution with a side clause against sodomy between men specifically,” after being tediously lectured by the novel’s capitalist villain, Mr. Udnam, on women’s suffrage and the way she’s dressed.

The most egregious in a novel fundamentally about femicide is Burroughs; he’s irresistible, but it’s hard to imagine him contemplating how men are “dis-eased in their own masculinity” or being pleased at the response his heroin dealer, Little Mama, gives when he asks why she is wasting herself on this place: “What am I gonnae do, ya great big arse? Be a poet? What wummin poets are you little Beat boys supporting?” The fact that the real Burroughs shot and killed his own wife, the poet Joan Vollmer, is waved away by his fictional counterpart here as a “hideous” mistake, though he acknowledges that he got away with it because “I come from a wealthy family and they don’t punish people like me.”

But like all the characters, Burroughs is so richly drawn, so enjoyable to be with, that you can forgive the authorial slips. Certainly, it’s not ahistorical to believe that society’s outcasts had a keen understanding of how they’ve had to make their own ways of being, find their own ways to be seen. Flora’s love, for one, “told her she was a chimera. It was the first time she had heard that word. There were other words before that. Freak, hermaphrodite, boy-girl, in-between. He was the first one to tell her she was not two things but one perfect creature made from stardust.”

The final “luckenbooth” is of course the haunted tenement itself. Like Miss Havisham’s dress, the building is going to ruin, and there is knocking in the walls, the wood-boring deathwatch beetles tap-tapping the doomsday clock of rot, like the Morse code Ivy has memorized, like a telltale heart, like the cloven hooves of the devil’s daughter on the floorboards.

Levi, a Black American in the 1930s, works in the bone library of a veterinary college and finds himself constructing a mermaid skeleton, maybe inspired by his science-fiction leanings or the whispers he hears in his room at night. Ivor, a light-phobic coal miner in the 1980s, who is the victim of both domestic violence and Thatcher’s austerity policies, tries to console his niece about her invisible friend trapped in the walls, and remembers the visions he saw in the dark of the pit.

Then there’s Agnes Campbell, a spiritual medium intent on exposing frauds. Her husband, Archie, bemoans the ectoplasm he finds in her purse — a “mucous-like substance,” made from paper and egg whites and chemicals, that she confiscated from a scammer who pulled it out from under her skirt to shock her audiences. But Agnes is the real deal who summons all the aggrieved ghosts of 10 Luckenbooth to confront a killer. Another writer might have made this the central mystery and conflict, but Fagan is much more interested in how we are haunted by oppression, the homophobia and racism and sexism that come up again and again — uglier and more shocking than any fake ectoplasm, or real ghosts.

In the coal miner’s story, Fagan invokes the “Brallachan — a brilliant shapeless creature of the night,” which, according to folklore, craves the form of others and pours itself into them, especially when they are vulnerable. It’s a fine metaphor for the author, who shifts between these voices with fevered joy, taking us through a host of characters who are all extravagant, wild and wounded at heart.

“What isn’t haunted in this city?” the gangster Queen Bee wonders behind her fox mask, en route to violence. “This city’s ghosts haunt babies from the womb. Real Edinburgh people are part otherworldly; it underlines their particular brand of crazy.”

Luckenbooth, the tenement, is ultimately only the skeleton, its ghost stories the skin that holds it together. But the sparking nervous system of the book is its characters, all broken, all reassembled in their own ways, like Kintsugi, the Japanese process of highlighting cracks by mending them with gold. Dot aspires to this wabi-sabi philosophy with the building crumbling around her; “perhaps she is the gold it needs.” Despite its darkness, the novel is carried by jagged delight and optimism, a bright hope coming through the walls and a fundamental belief in people. Filled with blistering social critique, “Luckenbooth” is an ambitious and ravishing novel that will haunt me long after.

Stories can be like a house, somewhere you can inhabit for a while. The best kind leave behind a room inside you.

Circassia News

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