The House That Fagan Built
TCB Review of Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

By Kirsten Anderson, 4th Jan 2021

“The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow. Perhaps. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and like religion, like history, like science itself, this ties it to a very singular experience of the promise.”
Jacques Derrida, Mal d’Archive, 1995

“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out”
William S. Burroughs

The world would split open. That is what feminist and activist poet Muriel Rukeyser declared would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life. I was re-visiting those lines of Rukeyser’s famous 1968s poem, Kathe Kollwitz when I began to read Jenni Fagan’s 3rd novel, Luckenbooth. An odd co-incidence perhaps, given what the pages soon began to reveal, although writer and poet William Burroughs believed there were no such things as coincidences. Burroughs turns up as a central character in the middle of Luckenbooth, you see. More of him later.

As for women splitting the world open with their truths? It always struck me as an optimistic yet naïve line for such a woman as smart as Rukeyser. After all, women have been telling the truth about their lives for centuries. Who cares? The world keeps turning, more or less intact. The problem of course, is getting people to pay attention.

Enter Jenni Fagan, peddler of truths, with her latest construction: 10 Luckenbooth Close. An Edinburgh tenement like no other, it appears to be alive and the residents don’t know why. The basement is described as “guts”, the attic has “toothy gaps” and is also home to some Kafka-esque goings on. It’s best not to discuss what lies beneath the basement. Or what the walls are hiding…

Luckenbooth is a tale of the supernatural in the ancient city of Edinburgh and those drawn to the novel for those reasons will not be disappointed. It features witches, ghosts and the devil himself. Seances and Ouija boards will be found between the pages and this is Jenni Fagan, so be prepared for vaginal ectoplasm and some angel wings too. There is also more than one example of eery prescience which is another hallmark of Fagan’s which is best not to think about too much in a “how did she know that?” way, or your head might start to hurt. Yet for all this, Luckenbooth is also a very realist novel in many ways.

Jenni Fagan is no stranger to some of life’s cold, hard truths and she is keen to share those truths with the masses. She possesses a fierce intellect, which I have no doubt has been and will continue to be underestimated by those who are no match for her anyway. With a vast knowledge of the occult, witches and the supernatural, Fagan is able to build vivid characters and plots around these subjects in ways that will please anyone who is drawn to them but she also employs them as vehicles with which to examine societal structures and injustices that fans of the most gritty realism, historical fiction and philosophical texts will enjoy. With Luckenbooth, Fagan looks at more structures than she has ever attempted to do in a work of fiction before and examines complex philosophical constructs while simultaneously telling not just one compelling story but several of them. Fagan weaves in historical facts, snapshots of an ever-changing Edinburgh across the decades and gives several nods to her literary heroes but there is never an ounce of snobbery or intellectual gatekeeping to be seen. Quite the opposite, in fact; Fagan’s novel invites all readers to feast at her table of knowledge, including many weird and wonderful facts, but there is no requirement to do so. If you are intimidated at first by all the information being offered, think of it as optional extras, which you can return to graze on later. I almost guarantee you will be re-reading Luckenbooth anyway, so it’s fine. I will be brushing up on the beetle facts contained therein next time around.

One of the characters in Luckenbooth writes home to the USA and describes Edinburgh as being two cities. “One above ground and one below, one in the centre and another in the outskirts.” I underlined this passage as it reminded me of Fagan’s deceptively complex prose and the subject matters, she explores in Luckenbooth. Some readers may only see above the ground on first reading, some may see above and below but miss the outskirts. That is the joy of this novel and indeed Fagan’s prose for me. Luckenbooth is a book to be enjoyed by the many, not the elite few. It is a novel that can be met exactly where the reader is ready to find it and returned to and explored again and again.

Luckenbooth spans 9 decades as told through the lives of 9 characters, each one living on a different floor of Fagan’s fictional tenement building. I got the impression while reading it that all of Fagan’s poetry and novels thus far have been building up to her construction of 10 Luckenbooth Close, and the manifestation on the page of the inhabitants who dwell there. This is why I always urge those new to Fagan to read her poetry as well as her prose. That is the catacombs of her work and everything else seems to rise from there, haunting everything else she creates. ‘We Are Edinburgh’ and ‘Bangor Village Hospital’ (There a Witch in the Word Machine, 2018) are two of her poems that my mind was thrust back to again and again as I read Luckenbooth. “Everything comes from poetry” as Fagan said herself in 2019.

In her debut novel, The Panopticon, which is also the name of the care home Anais is taken to at the start of the story, a physical structure is used as a means to examine other structures; the “care” system, self, identity, family. Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims further explored structures such as, gender, masculinity and the mother archetype while taking readers on a journey into an imagined futuristic winter. Fagan continued to build on themes of the supernatural, myths and family history which were also examined in The Panopticon, which was very much a gothic tale, at the same time addressing serious issues such as rape and suicide.

It makes sense to me that Fagan metaphorically moved outside into vast, beautiful landscapes into a town of her own creation after The Panopticon, before she came back inside one fixed structure from which to base her third novel, which is her most ambitious yet. I never felt a sense of claustrophobia reading Luckenbooth because although the stories are mostly told from inside one tenement, (we visit the odd bar in the early 1900s and a strip club in the 1970s) the storylines of each character across the decades are a vivid world unto themselves, each of those offering windows into the worlds of others. We see the events of Tiananmen Square playing out while a woman lies drugged up on Tramadol in 10 Luckenboooth Close during the 1980s, all the while being watched by another character who we are following, who is in turn turning talking to his niece about something which he doesn’t understand but we, the reader do because we have been gently led by Fagan, in and out, back and forth into each and all of the stories from page one.

I imagine writing the novel may have been a claustrophic experience though, akin to living in the tenement for years. Fagan has spoken in recent online events of having it painted on her wall, sleeping under it and having nightmares during the writing process as the building and the residents consumed her. It is now painted over and she has since moved out but she said the outline of her rendering of 10 Luckenbooth Close can still be seen by the new inhabitants when the sun shines on the wall. An apt reminder of something Luckenbooth explores so well: the past is always present and can never be erased. The consequences of it live on with all of us, somehow. For better or for worse.

Hardcore Fagan fans will recognise patriarchy, gender, race, class and narcissism as subjects from TRUTH (Tangerine Press) her limited edition book length poem in 6 parts written in 2017 while on road trip across the USA. With Luckenbooth, she has a new vehicle with which to confront and explore these issues again. As she did with TRUTH, Fagan offers real life history lessons and also news stories via her characters, (be ready to take notes as you will want to google them all later) and she presents us with Mr Udnum, Minister of Culture, who could be seen as a signifier for the likes of Trump, and indeed all narcissistic men in powerful positions like him. It is Mr Udnum who Jessie MacRae arrives in Edinburgh at the start of the novel to bear a child to, having been sold to him by her father, the devil. Nearly 100 years later, the results of Mr Udnum’s actions have not left any of the characters unaffected. In fact, he has left his mark much more so than the devil himself, it would seem.

By spanning her novel across 9 decades and illustrating how characters’ lives interweave, with the actions of someone in 1910 still reverberating in 1999, Fagan highlights how memory is a living thing, so connected to our history and identity and to individual and collective trauma. This is no doubt why I kept thinking of her poem Bangor Village Hospital while reading Luckenbooth. (I urge you to look up her film version of this online) Those who benefit from the worst of history and how it lives on, do their best to mythologise it, deny it or dismiss it. It takes a privileged person to say there is no such thing as patriarchy or systemic racism, homophobia or class warfare. Fagan has created a cast of characters from a multitude of backgrounds, each of whom is affected by one of these structures. Some of the characters, such as Flora and Ivy will be life-changing for many people to read about. This will be the novel that makes them feel seen. I can imagine some readers may not understand what these young women’s stories have to do with say, Ivor’s or William’s. I would urge them to look again. At the heart of the novel it seems Fagan is reminding us that to deny any one oppressive societal structure even while admitting others exist is to admit you benefit from that structure being upheld.

I should be clear that at no point did I feel that Fagan was preaching to readers about structural inequalities. She makes great use of her characters and dialogue to get truths across. The chapters with William Burroughs were stand out moments for me, along with Ivor’s chapters. It is worth noting here that I began this novel expecting only the occult, witches, and the devil’s daughter washing up on Leith’s shores in a coffin and was very content with that expectation too. So, it is to Fagan’s credit that some of my favourite chapters were about a suicidal miner during the Thatcher years and how he interacted with his 8-year-old niece who is a wise old soul called Esme, and her My Little Ponies.

Fictionalising Burroughs is no gimmick on Fagan’s part, although it could have been in the wrong hands. Unlike his contemporaries Kerouac and Ginsberg, he was immensely privileged, and he was also aware of it. A drug addicted gay man educated at Harvard, Burroughs was married to a woman he accidentally shot and killed, yet he wasn’t sent to prison. Burroughs’ conversations with his dealer, Little Mama, a character who is certainly not minor just because she doesn’t feature much, (no characters in Luckenbooth are minor) are very important parts of this novel. Through Burroughs, Fagan is able to explore patriarchy, violence against woman and class:

-Men, youz can be such absolute cunts
-He killed her for going back to her husband?
-He killed her because he was a psychopath, there’s never any other reason than that.
-Sometimes there is
-Aye, well, they hanged him in the new gallows. Two hundred people waited outside. The thing is, Bill, and you know this – wealthy men make mistakes. Working- class men commit murder. Then they get hanged. Not as a deterrent tae murdering women, noh, they have little reason tae try tae deter that – fear ay that and rape help keep women in oor place, it’s why they hardly ever convict them firrit. They killed that man to warn the great unwashed - to warn other working-class men – watch yer fucking step ay. We can just fucking hang your kind!
-Isn’t it?

Those familiar with Burroughs and his work will surely agree after reading his chapters that Fagan has done an excellent job of faithfully bringing him to life in Luckenbooth. Readers who are unfamiliar with his ideas about words being a virus, about cut ups, about reality itself, will be keen to explore more after being introduced to him here. This is what I mean when I say there is no gate-keeping with Fagan; you don’t need to know anything about Burroughs to enjoy Luckenbooth but by writing him into her novel she is gifting readers with a chance to learn a little and decide if they want to. I noticed that one of the other characters in the Burroughs section of Luckenbooth has the same name as a close relation of Burroughs, who was a publicist for Hitler. I like to think Jenni Fagan is re-writing some wrongs of history here. It may of course be another co-incidence but I’m sure Bill would approve either way.

In another nod to more recent history, I couldn’t help but briefly think of Sammy in James Kelman’s How Late it was, How Late, when Ivor the aforementioned miner, who is suicidal and a survivor of domestic violence, visits the doctor. Ivor has a severe phobia of the light. He lives in darkness and would rather be thought a scab than admit to his pals he has mental health issues. There are some moving moments of dialogue between Ivor and his GP, and although it takes him a while to accept help, the message is clear that the GP is there for him, and that it is not at all unusual for young men to feel suicidal. Whereas Kelman’s Sammy is made to feel less than by the GP, and told his language is offensive, Ivor is shown acceptance at all times. It is both a touching and funny moment when Ivor says, deadpan, “it means vagina” when he realises the doctor has no idea what he means by “fud.”

The narrative style was reminiscent of Kelman in Ivor’s chapters too, with the third 3rd person narrator segueing into an almost 1st person one, so close did the reader get to Ivor’s experience. I had to double check more than once at first that Fagan hadn’t switched to a first-person narrator. Her skill at crafting different narrators and narrative styles for each character were one of the most impressive things about Luckenbooth. In Ivor’s chapters, Fagan is at once both faithful to the historical facts of the past, and the experiences of working class men but is also providing a message of hope to those reading today and telling young men that they don’t have to suffer alone, don’t have to turn to violence to deal with painful feelings and that women can be indeed be “cunts” too but we are also not the enemy. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Ivor appears to realise as we, the reader say goodbye to him.

Hope is both a character in Luckenbooth and an important theme in Fagan’s novel. She shows us the bleakest sides of humanity but things are never hopeless. Indeed, it is the humanity in Fagan’s writing that sets her apart from the likes of Muriel Spark, a writer I have always enjoyed for her ice cool wit and wry observations about human behaviour. Fagan reminded me of Spark at times in this novel as she has done in the past, due to her humour and ability to construct a narrator that can appear to metaphorically burst a character’s balloon. (I am thinking of poor Archie and his lacklustre quiff here). I laughed out loud on many occasions where I least expected to and Fagan’s wicked sense of humour and observations about her characters are yet more highlights of this novel. Spark’s prose, as many have told me in drunken pub debates over the years, may be witty and smart but it lacks warmth and humanity. I can’t argue with that. She can’t write sex scenes like Fagan can either. Steady yourself for those, by the way. None of them gratuitous or cringeworthy, all of them depicting LGBT love and sex, which is not new for Fagan’s characters or work, nor does she feel the need to draw attention to it but it will certainly make a lot of people feel seen and represented in ways they may not have experienced before. The importance of this should not go unacknowledged.

Luckenbooth has been expertly crafted, and is structurally sound, which sadly can’t be said for 10 Luckenbooth Close. Fagan’s chapter headings- Each with a character’s name, decade and tenement address means the reader always knows where they are in terms of time and place. Fagan’s skills as a poet are evident on every page and there is a hypnotic quality to the rhythm of her prose. Short sentences often stack up which would be beautiful poems in their own right. On other pages, it is her’s poet’s ability to take a beautiful image and render it into realistic dialogue that were striking, such as Flora’s discussions about love drawing out madness “like a poultice.”

However, Fagan won’t allow the reader to relax completely. This is fiction but it is also a true story. These are all of our stories. Women, the LGBT community, people of colour, disabled people, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. Fagan explores male suicide, domestic violence- against women and men, the cycle of trauma. It is all told in a mesmerising manner set against the backdrop of an Edinburgh that is depicted as unforgiving and cruel, haunted, yet beautiful and alluring. But Fagan’s deft use of sections and chapters and different narrative voice techniques for each character as discussed above, is both impressive and an effective barrier to any hypnotic lulling into the safety of fiction.

Jessie MacCrae, the devil’s daughter, and Ivy, a 17-year-old lesbian who is off to fight the Nazis are both first person narrators of their own stories. Levi’s chapters are epistolary and serve an important purpose to explain points about Edinburgh and Scotland, especially our language. I imagine if people had to choose a least favourite character, it might be Levi and on first reading I felt less excited about returning to his story than the others. On second reading though, I realised how much his letters home to the USA expanded and explained plot points from other characters and chapters. I also couldn’t help but notice that Levi felt unwanted in Edinburgh sometimes, and like he didn’t belong or fit in. This made me examine my relationship with the character. Was this Fagan’s plan all along?

As for the ending, I was so intrigued by the sudden appearance and words of a character I did not expect to hear from again that I went back to the beginning immediately to see if Fagan had hidden clues that would make a second reading a different experience. The answer is yes. If you use this information to take a peek at the ending before you begin, you are going to rob yourself of so much. So, don’t.

Fagan said in an online interview with the writer Alan Warner that Luckenbooth was her most ambitious work to date and she would never be young enough or foolish enough to attempt the likes of it again. I don’t agree with the foolish part for one minute but it was most certainly ambitious and it paid off. Using this fictional structure and a cast of characters and stories so vividly depicted it is hard for me to imagine them not existing now, Fagan has painstakingly housed collective memories, shared history, identities and traumas, creating an archive of the kind explored by Derrida in Mal d’Archive. Only Fagan could have constructed this particular archive though. An Edinburgh house of memories, Luckenbooth is graciously shared with us,her readers and appears to have been centuries and lifetimes in the making. ●

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
- published by William Heinemann, 14th Jan 2021

"A deeply powerful, compellingly vivid novel ... LUCKENBOOTH is a major work of Scottish fiction - possibly one of the most significant novels of the last ten years ... [A] forceful work of fiction to energize a somewhat diffuse, uncertain and often self-congratulatory fictional landscape ... What is so significant about the novel is its instinctive, vatic, lyrical, occult power ... A poetic novel which reverberates and pulses in its own universe and on its own terms."