From the opening page, a darkness hangs over the novel like a pall over a coffin, which is ironic because the protagonist is rowing her way to Luckenbooth Close, Edinburgh, in her coffin. Yes, I did say her coffin. We learn some important information while she rows. She refers to herself as the devil’s daughter.
“The sea won’t take me. I am the devil’s daughter. Nobody wants responsibility for my immortal soul.”
She keeps crossing herself three times. Why do this if you are the devil’s daughter? She also says that she must perfectly hide the tips of her horns. Yes she has a pair of incipient horns. She has been told that nobody can ever find the address she seeks, Number Ten, Luckenbooth Close. But she can.
At her destination, the gargoyles that adorn the cupola on the top floor stare down at her 9 floors below. She is greeted by a huge woman who seems to give her nothing but warnings. Don’t do this, never do that, do not enter the basement.
“If you do one thing wrong, they will hang you by morning.”
The darkness thickens. We learn her name is Jessie. She is to work as a maid to Mr Udnam. But in truth her father has sold her to him, and she is to bear him a child.
The novel is divided into three parts with each part containing three different stories, one for each floor in ascending order. Not only that, the narrative flows forward in time with each story and floor as well.
The first story we have already touched on. The devil’s daughter is contracted to the owner of Luckenbooth Close to bear him a child. It begins in 1910 in the first floor flat 1F1.
The second story takes place on the second flat 2F2 and it is 1928. This branch of the narrative takes place in a drag ball where every decadent desire can be catered for.
The last story of Act 1 moves to the flat above and 1939 is now the date. A bone library now occupies this flat. The protagonist of this branch of the narrative is constructing a bone mermaid.
The narrative will follow this structure, covering all nine floors of 10 Luckenbooth Close and will span over 80 years. Aside from the residents already mentioned, there is a World War 2 spy, a fight between rival gangs, a séance and so much more. Each floor contains its own story. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all connected in various ways to the very first story involving the devil’s daughter and a curse that enshrouds the building.
This wonderful novel is like a dark gothic fairy tale, albeit one that has a much larger sinister degree of horror embedded within. If dark gothic tales are your thing then you are in for a treat with this novel. I have not encountered a novel with this narrative structure before and Fagan does an incredible job of tying all the strings of the branching narrative together, never letting the reader get lost, and believe me this is no easy feat.
One of the best novels I have read this year, and one I will be returning to. 5 Stars.
Jenni Fagan’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Panopticon, was published in 2012 and named one of the Waterstones Eleven, a selection of the best fiction debuts of the year. It has since been published in eight languages and a film is being made by Sixteen Films, for which Fagan herself wrote the screenplay.
Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia (2010) was named 3:AM magazine’s Poetry Book of the Year and is being published as a wider collection in 2016. Her second novel The Sunlight Pilgrims was also published in 2016.
She holds an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, and currently lives in a coastal village in Scotland.
Here is a link to The Scotsman with Jenni talking about "The Panopticon" - https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/jenni-fagan-life-care-and-her-new-novel-1579326