I just loved Jenni Fagan’s other books, so I was expecting a lot from Luckenbooth. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver.
The devil’s daughter launches herself off the island where she was born, using her own coffin for a boat. She arrives at a tenement in Edinburgh to take on the function her father has sold her for, to be the surrogate mother for Mr. Uldam’s child with his fiancée Elise.
This is the first of nine story threads that proceed up the nine floors of 10 Luckenbooth Close, a building of secrets and horrors. The novel has a specific structure. It is split into thirds, with each third featuring the tales of residents on three floors of the building, and each thread advancing a decade in time, beginning in 1910. On the second floor, a transgender woman attends a transgressive party in 1928. On the third floor, a black Southern American works in the bone library of a veterinary school in 1939, and so on. The building hides some horrors that are finally revealed in 1999, when Dot, who is squatting in the derelict building, rips out the walls of the lower floors. But these secrets are no big surprise.
The stories are written in modern vernacular, which I suppose is a stylistic choice, but found it grating, especially for Levi’s letters to his brother. He’s the black American from Louisiana, and besides not sounding 1939ish, he doesn’t sound American, he doesn’t sound black, and he definitely doesn’t sound Southern. In fact, the more I think about it, I feel this choice to use modern vernacular indicates a general attitude of laziness. As an example, Levi chooses to explain things to his brother that his brother would know—like the building being called tenement, as if the U. S. hasn’t had tenements for hundreds of years. In fact, Levi is unbelievably naïve for a black man from the American South. The rich get everything while the poor get nothing? What a surprise!
Another example is that for a gothic novel that is supposed to convey the dark history of Edinburgh, there is an amazing lack of a sense of place (except for in the building) until 1999. Does this suggest that the author thus evaded any research into the appearance of Edinburgh in the past?
I can go on about this, but I just want to bring up a few more things. One is the polemic passages in the novel. There are long passages of ranting about such subjects as the treatment of the poor or women. I would have thought these ideas could have been worked in differently.
Next, I don’t know anything about William S. Burroughs, for example, whether he believed what Fagan has him say. All I know is, after the first few paragraphs when he started talking, I started flipping pages.
Finally, there is a gangster standoff in 1977 where what is said is so unlikely that I could barely stand it. It seems like it might have been a juvenile idea of a “cool” scene.