“Big thumbs up” – The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

jfspSo Fagan published one novel (2012’s The Panopticon) and, off the back of that, got onto everyone’s radar and onto Granta’s Best Young British Novelist list – here, now, is novel two, and can you imagine the pressure? The first book was, loosely, a coming-of-age text about a teenage girl, Anais, who’s been brought up in a succession of foster homes and state institutions, whose birth mother was a schizophrenic runway, whose adoptive mother was stabbed to death, whose sort-of boyfriend was a dealer – etc, etc – and who’s now landed up in the Bentham-esque institution known as the Panopticon, a state-of-the-art institution for young people ‘in care’, while she’s investigation for possibly putting a police officer in a coma. You’ll probably believe me, then, when I say it’s a grim read, but also funny and beautiful and tender – and while The Sunlight Pilgrims is a whole different beast in terms of plot (fucked up families definitely feature, but they’re at large this time and not under 24/7 surveillance), it’s littered with that same sparkle: misery and fear and awe and joy all co-exist, and that’s what makes Fagan stand out.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is set in Clachan Fells, in Scotland, in late 2020 (into early 2021): global warming has thoroughly set in – the ice-caps are melting, glaciers are smacking into the Scottish coast, temperatures plummet, by the end, to -56C – and Dylan McRae, former cinema-owner from London, had just arrived to take up residence in his dead mum’s old caravan. Next door lives eleven year-old Stella, a trans kid struggling with her transition, and her own mum, Constance, who’s known (and shunned) locally for having two lovers. Dylan (of course) falls heavily for Constance while trying to negotiate his own past – his mum’s and grandmother’s deaths, his complex and worrying family tree – and to defend Stella from her own dad’s bigotry. And meanwhile the weather’s getting worse, the planet’s freezing over, and everyone’s quite literally trying to survive.

You can’t beat a bit of apocalyptic fiction, and the emergence of a new Ice Age is pretty apocalyptic (and credible). But Fagan’s not going for The Day After Tomorrow style action-man heroism (though there certainly are enough incidents of panic, rescue and tragedy to keep the pace up) – rather, she’s going for the whole how-do-we-all-continue-to-get-by angle; she’s asking, if society is in free-fall, and we’re stuck with it, and in it, how do we find joy in our time, and where do we find the motivation to carry on? So in this respect the closest contemporary equivalent novel to The Sunlight Pilgrims is probably Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), which also eschews the obvious drama of societal breakdown; Mandel picks up her characters’ lives as they try to figure out a new way to live after all the looting and pillaging and grotesque dying has more or less ceased. And that’s interesting, of course, because after McCarthy and King, and maybe Atwood, it’s hard to find a new angle on the moment of collapse, and, after all, it’s the day-to-day that we’d all ultimately have to contend with, if that collapse came to pass. But Mandel’s book, we thought, was missing some tension – the plot itself eschewed drama too much, the theatrical device felt underdeveloped, or, well, like a device. Now, Fagan, on the other hand, gets the drama/quotidian balance spot-on. Though her book begins (unlike Mandel’s) mid-collapse rather than a couple of decades later, the set-up itself (a small caravan park in a poor area, where the locals would be powerless even if they weren’t snowed in, and thus unlikely to have Significant Roles in the World’s Downfall) generates a similar effect: there’s nothing for her people to do but to carry on, as much as they can. So the kids have sledding contests; the adults make home-brew, stew over their love rivals, go on hikes; Stella struggles to get the doctors to prescribe her hormone blockers. And although the weather is killing people, her characters are also finding extraordinary beauty in it – in the ice formations, in the light, the aurora, the three suns that seem to appear in the frozen sky. What makes this more powerful (we think) than Mandel’s travelling Shakespearians is that the beauty isn’t inserted into people’s lives – it’s already there, in the landscape, in the very weather patterns that endanger them. So life and death are inextricably wound together in this book: the deadly conditions themselves inspire the characters to endure. And, of course, they force Dylan and Constance together, and everyone loves a love story, however tenuous and unconventional.

The other major point of interest, of course, is Stella’s story; Fagan’s treatment of the transition of a trans teen, or pre-teen, is both pragmatic and moving. We haven’t come across many books where trans life is even a feature, so this really stands out. And Fagan doesn’t over-dramatize it: the book isn’t about transsexual identity – one of its main characters simply happens to be transsexual. So Stella’s gender identity is resented with no crash-bang-wallop narrative histrionics and what drama it does entail (because of course there’s some drama – this might be apocalyptic but it’s still realism, and bigotry is ever-present, in kids and adults alike, and Stella, as you’d expect, struggles) is sensitively handled. And Stella’s a brilliant character anyway – fierce and vulnerable, like all the best, and, as real eleven year-olds tend to be, she’s a great mix of childhood and adolescence, which is particularly well drawn in her relationship to her parents and to Dylan.

Any Cop?: Big thumbs up. Beauty and horror, love and death, ice and light – what a package! While eschewing huge plotlines, Fagan still gives us a rattling story, and if this is how the world ends, there’d be much worse ways to go than in the company of Stella and her cohort in the Fells.


Valerie O’Riordan


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