Book Review: Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Book - Sunlight PilgrimsSunlight Pilgrims is an atmospheric coming-of-age climate change novel – a tale of survival and hope against the backdrop of a freezing winter that sees cities grind to a halt, as temperatures plummet. Set in the Scottish caravan park of Clachan Fells, the book is both visceral and surreal but also entirely believable. We follow the story of young Stella, a trans teenager who is determined to ignore the judgements of others and seek out an identity of her own.  

The book is also narrated by Dylan, an exceptionally tall, sensitive man, struck down by grief after the deaths of his Mother and Grandmother. He is evicted from his childhood home (an old art-house cinema in London which was also his livelihood) and ends up travelling to Clachan Fells in search of a caravan that his mother bought for him before she died. Dylan and Stella soon become friends, as each of them begins to face up to their own struggles.

Dylan is mesmerised by Constance (Stella’s mother) who makes a living out of transforming old furniture, and seems to be ostracised by the local community for having had two lovers. She is also fiercely independent, but we never get to hear her side of the story. Whilst Dylan falls head over heels for Constance, he also begins to discover the truth of his own family origins.

It is the atmospheric descriptions that draw you in. The majestic Scottish mountains reign over almost every scene, as each of the characters revels in the beauty of their surroundings, aware that they are privileged to witness such grandeur, but also severely vulnerable:

“The landscape is brilliantly lit, flawless… the cold is clangorous. It vibrates. Shrill and deadly… They wear ice-grips over their boots, and gloves and scarves like they are moon travellers setting out into this landscape alone.”

There is a cold intensity to it, and a sense that these people are as real as you can get, almost that this is a true story. Jenni Fagan has a way of getting inside the minds of her characters so that you can see everything clearly through their eyes, as thoughts, speech and observation merge together in real time (although this sometimes makes it difficult to know who is speaking).

There is also a subtle wit that carries the narrative along. Here’s an extract from later on in the book, in which Dylan has sought refuge in Ikea:

“The guy further up Ash Lane, with his alien badges, gave Dylan a lift all this way and is off to get himself a new office desk-type thing to put his new alien transceiver box on; he zapped Dylan this morning on Ash Lane and Dylan staggered back a few steps. That’s what nailed him the lift.”

I love the way this is recalled in such a matter-of-fact tone of voice – it shows how Dylan cares about his new neighbours (even the strange ones) and how alliances can form over inconsequential moments.

There were some things that I didn’t appreciate in this book. It seems to condone porn, polygamy and drowning your sorrows with alcohol. But these things are subsidiary to the main plot, and reflective of the characters themselves, who have all begun their lives in difficult circumstances.

The more I read, the more I began to get an unnerving sense that this is exactly how things might pan out, should the world’s climate begin to change more quickly than we expect – a giant iceberg off the coast of Scotland, village meetings, power cuts, tourists flocking to see the snowy peaks, panic buying and refuge centres. The news reports sound frighteningly real, although you do get a sense that Dylan, Constance and Stella can survive anything, simply because they are characters in a novel. It is only as the story draws to a close that the reality of their situation begins to sink in.

Fagan has produced a tender portrayal of grief, and of the surreal experience of transitioning gender through puberty. This was the first time I’d read a novel with a transgender protagonist, and it is sensitively done. I would thoroughly recommend this book. Not only is it an enjoyable read, but it will also make you think. I only wish it were longer.

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