This novel, by Jenni Fagan, is the horrifying biography of a building, organised by floors and rooms rather than chronologically. One reviewer compared it to George Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual: the form is similar, working through a series of loosely linked stories room by room, but the tone and content is very different. This building is an old-fashioned Edinburgh tenement, 10, Luckenbooth Close. A Luckenbooth is a kind of stall selling trinkets, and by extension the little pair of linked hands made in silver that were the most popular item for sale there; but apart from providing the address that doesn’t seem to be of any wider importance to the story.
The history of this building is full of dark fantasy, violence and the supernatural, ghastly tales delivered with skill and a kind of gloomy zest. If that’s the kind of thing you like, a feast awaits you here; for me the fantastic crossed over into the absurd a little too often. There’s a passage towards the end which recounts a kind of duel between local gangsters and Triad members, which would make a great comic book, or maybe a Tarantinoesque film sequence, but while I read it avidly I didn’t believe a word of it; exciting, but in the superficial way a brilliantly choreographed fight scene might be. Perhaps I’m hard to please. Others have detected elements of social commentary here which eluded me.
Or take the opening of the book in which Jessie MacRae paddles away from some island where she has killed her father (who is the Devil, apparently, and not altogether dead, either; like a lot of things in the story this is sort of inexplicable). For a boat she uses the coffin her father made for her, though goodness knows how that works. Where is she coming from, anyway? She ends up in Leith, but there aren’t really any islands off Scotland’s North Sea coast, and her father’s corpse is said to stare at the North Atlantic. It does take her three days, but even just coming from Orkney would have to be some amazing feat of seamanship in these dangerous waters – or, of course, just magic. Perhaps I’m niggling over details, but sailing in a coffin is for me one of the touches that tries too hard, slipping from the horrifying into the risible. Jessie, who has been sold by her father to be a kind of surrogate mother, is herself demonic, producing the baby within days and growing horns like her Dad’s. That rather recalls Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, though as I understand it Mr Pye’s horns were a sarcastic comment from God on a man who took himself much too seriously and the moral complexity of the world nothing like seriously enough (I’ll just leave that there).
There’s a lot to enjoy here if you like a bit of grisly gothic. For me, when the last mutilated corpses have been uncovered, the final ghosts released, and the building finally subsides into ruin, one deep and difficult question is left in the reader’s mind. What was all that about?