Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

the-sunlight-pilgrimsSet in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – THE SUNLIGHT PILGRIMS tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.

I read Fagan’s debut novel The Panopticon a few years ago, and considered it to be one of the best books of 2013 (along with Longbourn). So when I heard that her next book was due out, and that it was getting positive reviews, I went and brought the hardback almost as soon as it came out. (Says a lot about the original book huh?).

Of course, this could well have been the difficult second book, but thankfully Fagan has had a different enough landscape compared to the previous story. Set in the 2020 Scotland, when the temperature is dropping well below zero, icebergs are breaking away and making their way into the north Atlantic, and it’s generally agreed that the next Ice Age is upon us.

Dylan, his mother and grandmother now both dead and the bailiffs on the doorstep of the cinema that is his home, packs up the ashes of the two women and travels north to Scotland where his mother has apparently brought a Static mobile home. Here he meets a cast of eccentric characters, including Barnacle (who is bent crooked so he’s always looking at the ground); Constance, who is the closest Dylan will ever come to meeting a survivalist and who is the mother of the barely teenage Stella, who is trying to make her own way, having decided that she doesn’t want to be the boy she was born as (and therefore trying to cope with facing the boys she goes to school as who remember her as a boy from the year before).

The ice age itself isn’t the story, it’s just a backdrop of how people are living their lives, trying not to listen to the doom merchants on the tv as they report on London coming to a standstill and the snowdrifts in Italy. Stella’s father Alistair has an on-off relationship with Constance, which is not helped that he is married to someone else (his third) who hates Constance. Alistair still hasn’t come to terms with Stella’s choices and he does not get on with Dylan, as they seem to take an instant dislike to each other. It doesn’t help that Dylan has found a secret about his grandmother’s family in the diary his mother has left behind.

The way it is written is very fluid, especially in the beginning, and the lack of quotation marks and identifying “he said”s can make it a little confusing but worth getting through. Here is an example half way through the books as to how Stella tries to navigate her way through a staunchly conservative school and health strutucture who can’t comprehend she wants to not be a boy.

They took her into a meeting in school and she had to say in advance that she wasn’t a lesbian, or they wouldn’t have let her even try to use the girls’ changing room. They asked her if she was still a Christian. She explained that her family is not religious. They asked her what she knew of damnation. She asked them what they knew of autonomy. They asked her how she knew that word. She asked if they had met her mother. They said they would pray for her. She said it was not necessary. They asked if she might feel different in a few months, or if perhaps she should simply change for gym in the janitor’s cupboard. She said she’d felt like this her whole life and no amount of praying was going to change it and she could use the janitor’s cupboard to change, but she was a person, not a broom.

The story finishes on a bit of a cliff hanger, where it’s March , -60, and Dylan, Stella, Constance and Alisdair are holed up in Alisdair’s house (don’t ask), waiting for the storm to descend……

 

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