Jenni Fagan’s savage 2012 debut novel, The Panopticon, was notable for characters whose resilience in the face of homelessness and socioeconomic defeat got them through. That resilience, with its accompanying anger and self-celebratory humour, re-emerges in the instantly recognisable denizens of her third novel, Luckenbooth. Society is in the process of discarding them, and failing. Marginal but never marginalised, they start out with plenty of energy. Whether that will survive their encounter with the world is always at issue, yet never in doubt. That’s why we care for them: gallant one moment, mad the next, glamorous the one after that, they feed so cheerfully off their apparent defeats and limitations, refusing to recognise adversity except as an environment.
From the start, Luckenbooth gives the feel of a legend or fairy story. It’s 1910, on an unnamed island in the North Sea. Jessie Macrae and her father have had a falling out, and now he’s dead; or, given that he’s the Devil, he may still be alive. Jessie, who has been growing horns herself of late, launches into the surf in the coffin he forced her to sleep in – perhaps as a stark reminder of her mortality, perhaps as a harbinger of it – and begins to row. Three days later she lands on the Edinburgh shore, where she finds herself at 10, Luckenbooth Close, a tenement building on nine floors, “with catacombs below”. There she’ll meet Mr Udnam – gangster, property speculator and, surprisingly, minister of culture – and his wife; and become the surrogate mother of their child. She is pregnant within hours, or perhaps minutes, as you might be in a folk tale. The spiritual disaster thus ignited – the torn seam between the supernatural and capitalist reality – will haunt the tenement and its subsequent inhabitants for the rest of the century.
The struggle towards the revelation of what actually happened between the minister, his wife, their surrogate and their tiny daughter Hope narrates itself upwards, floor by floor. The building ages towards Hogmanay, 1999. Hooves are heard in the night. Time periods slip about, gleefully penetrating one another. A multistorey horror story reveals itself obliquely in fragments across a number of years and viewpoints, weirdly paced, the action rushed and breathless, generalised, then freezing for a moment on an unexpected scene or event. It’s like the speech of an excited child; but you soon discover that the perspective is much, much more experienced than your own.
Along the way the novel takes in the stories of a score of families, together with nine decades of ridiculous gangsters, dazed stoners and puzzled loners. In 1928, Flora, intersex and stunning, takes another bump of coke and looks herself over in her mirror before leaving for a party. In 1939, young, black and a long way from home, Levi from Louisiana catalogues animal bones at the Royal School of Veterinary Studies. He is learning to connect them, while impulses he doesn’t understand compel him to build a mermaid skeleton. In 1943, Ivy Proudfoot – 17, bisexual and obsessed with revenge – yearns to kill men the way men have always killed women. Every night she hears a little girl, trotting up and down all nine floors of the building. Agnes the spirit medium moved into Luckenbooth in 1926, and since then the dead have never left her alone. By 1956 they have colonised everything from the loo to her husband’s armchair. When she gets the tin bath out, they are in it before she is, and they have a message for the minister of culture. During the coalfield strikes of 1989, meanwhile, Ivor the miner, allergic to light, is listening out for his little niece Esme’s invisible friend, tap-tapping away in the walls.
Luckenbooth’s nine-storey history of social and economic deprivation is paralleled by its history of the outsider life. In pursuit of that, William Burroughs himself, doyen of junk and personal interplanetary travel, makes an inexplicable, suavely puzzled appearance out of the fog in 1963. It turns out he’s been living on the sixth floor, rearranging “the fabric of existence in twenty-six letters of the alphabet”. Even where they aren’t horned women or home-made mermaids, everyone in the novel is a chimera of one sort or another, caught between forms, illuminated from inside by the light of their own unkempt ideas and desires. “There’s a fine line,” Fagan has one character say, “between sparkle and psychosis.” She revels in that understanding, running it as close as she can in pursuit of her Gnostic sublime.
Historically, a luckenbooth was a place from which to trade, a lock-up booth on the Edinburgh Royal Mile; or often, by metonymy, the traditional heart-shaped brooch you might buy from one, to pin to the clothes of your firstborn and ward off evil. But whatever the word meant a hundred years ago, Luckenbooth the book is about now. Fagan’s booth of stories – her Cornell box of frenzies, tragedies and delights – offers the present moment in the endless war between love and capital. It’s brilliant.
• M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is published by Gollancz. Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan is published by William Heinemann (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.