Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan (2016)

July 22nd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A story about apocalypses, both personal and communal.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and transmisogyny.)

—Are you staring right at the sun? Stella asks.
—I’m staring right under it.
—You’ll go blind.
—No, I won’t. I was taught how to by the sunlight pilgrims, they’re from the islands farthest north. You can drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow. I do, she says.
—You glow?
—Like a fucking angel, she says.

She’s not worried about breasts and she doesn’t want rid of her penis, small as it is, not if it means getting an operation anyway. She just wants smooth skin and her girl voice and to leave wolf prints in the snow each morning.

It is funny how he always thought she was a hero when he was a little boy, but he had no idea exactly how much that was true.

The Sunlight Pilgrims isn’t quite what I expected. Usually when I say this about a book, it’s with at least a hint of disappointment. Not so in this case! The Sunlight Pilgrims may not be the book I wanted, but it’s exactly the book I needed.

To me, the word “caravan” evokes action, movement, journeys (preferably epic ones). The synopsis brought to mind a group of daring travelers, weaving through the mountainous countryside, trying in vain to stay ahead of the harsh winter (and, presumably, the violence, looting, riots, starvation, poverty, etc. that are sure to follow). I guess I overlooked the word “park,” not realizing that caravans are to the UK what trailers are to the US: mostly stationary homes. Thus, what we get is a story that’s a little less Mad Max and a little more mundane: a small, remote town in the Scottish Highlands preparing for the worst winter in two hundred years. Perilous, yes, but minus the action and adventure I expected.

Likewise, this isn’t necessarily the apocalypse. Set a mere four years in the future, conditions are dire, to be sure: climate change and melting ice caps have led to a a global cooling in temperatures. The Thames is overflowing (and then frozen solid); an iceberg nicknamed Boo is expected to make contact with the Scottish coast; and experts predict that temperatures in some regions will drop as low as -50 degrees. Many people will die of starvation or will freeze to death. Blackouts are common; internet connections are down. Rioting, looting, protests, and violence are commonplace. Things are very, very bad. But is it the end of the world? Maybe, maybe not.

(Fagan leaves things rather open-ended; you’ll either like Part 3 or you won’t. I’m not always a fan of unresolved endings, but it’s difficult to imagine The Sunlight Pilgrims signing off any other way.)

Against this backdrop, Fagan introduces us to three wonderful, complex, beautiful people.

Thirty-eight-year-old Dylan MacRae was raised by his grandmother Gunn and his mother Vivienne – both of whom he recently lost, just six months apart. Deep in debt, and with the banks repossessing the family’s beloved theater in Soho, London, Dylan comes to Clachan Fells to mourn his family…and because he has nowhere else to go. Before her untimely death, Vivienne purchased a caravan for him, off the books; along with a few salvaged reels of film and his favorite vintage movie posters, it’s all he has left in the world. With his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes stuffed in a stray Tupperware container and an odd ice cream bucket, Dylan arrives in Scotland to ride out the winter; after the thaw, he hopes to scatter his family’s ashes in the Orkney Islands, the place of Gunn’s birth.

The Incomer, as he’s called, moves in next to the Fairbairns. Stella is a twelve-year-old trans girl who came out just thirteen months ago. While her mother Constance took it in stride, the rest of Clachan Fells (even Stella’s own father Alistair) reacts about how you’d expect: with transphobic microaggressions, bullying, and even the occasional physical violence. Her old friend Lewis likes her as something more – but overcompensates by mocking Stella whenever anyone else is around. The nuns who run the only school in Clachan Fells barred Stella from the girls’ changing room and warned her that she’s risking eternal damnation. Likewise, the only physician in the region is equally unhelpful, prescribing Stella anti-depressants rather than the hormone blockers she so desperately needs.

Constance Fairbairn is all kinds of awesome. She doesn’t just “tolerate” Stella’s new identity; rather, Constance loves and embraces Stella, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, acting as her advocate, her friend, and her cheerleader. She buys Stella girly clothes, demands that books on tolerance and diversity be added to the public library, and stares down Stella’s unsympathetic doctor. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks, nor does she need a man in the house.

Though Constance has been openly juggling two lovers for as many decades (leading to all sorts of sexist slut shaming from the peanut gallery that is a small town), she has zero interest in “settling down.” Stella’s father Alistair lives in a cottage on the mountain with his latest wife (somehow he escapes judgement for his multiple marriages, divorces, and girlfriends; funny, that), while Caleb is frequently gone, traveling abroad. A self-sufficient survivalist, Constance gets by just fine on her own: she grows and preserves her own food, chops her own firewood, winterized her caravan (and, later, Dylan’s), and salvages and restores furniture from the city dump to make some extra cash.

Captivated by the girl next door and her mother who polishes the moon, Dylan becomes fast friends with the Fairbairns. But a decades-old family secret – left for Dylan by Vivienne in a sketchbook found in the caravan – threatens to upend these new connections, almost before they’ve had a chance to take root and blossom amidst the impossibly harsh winter landscape.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is nothing if not a character-driven story, and these characters are just … lovely. A breath of fresh winter air: crisp, biting, and oh so refreshing. Very rarely do you find characters painted in such vivid detail, characters who leap right off the page and into your heart and mind and imagination.

Each of the MCs – and many of the supporting characters, like Gunn, Vivienne, Barnacle, and Ida – is a marvel on her own, and yet when put together, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Stella + Constance, Constance + Dylan, and Dylan + Stella – these relationships are magnificent, a wonder to behold. I could listen to their banter for a million winters – seriously, the dialogue is witty AF – and never tire of them.

Would it be crazy to say that I love three people I’ve never met? Who don’t actually exist? Because I do. So very much.

Also marvelous is Fagan’s stubborn resistance to romantic conventions. As Dylan and Constance grew closer, I was certain that something would give with the Constance-Alistair-Caleb love triangle; that it would lead to the breakdown of Constance’s and Dylan’s relationship, or (worse) vice verse. Happily, Dylan’s love isn’t enough to wrangle Constance into a monogamous relationship: from the start, she makes it clear to Dylan that this is who she is. And while Dylan might not be thrilled at the prospect, he does accept it. Constance is worth it.

The landscape is splendid as well; Fagan describes a once-verdant countryside hemmed in by mountains (the seven sisters) and blanketed in snow. The apocalypse is a constant presence; though its threat hangs heavy over Clachan Fells, the coming Ice Age is more of shadow figure than a tangible thing. Life goes on, end times or no; how could it not?

The Scottish Highlands and the storm that consumes them meld together to create another character; but a supporting one, one that highlights the wild and precious lives of Stella, Constance, and Dylan (and Gunn before them). I wouldn’t have it any other way.

At its core, The Sunlight Pilgrims is a story about apocalypses, both personal and communal. With the deaths of Gunn and Vivienne and the loss of their baby, the Babylon, Dylan’s life as he knew it is gone; it’s up to him to rebuild anew. For Stella, her apocalypse lurks inside her; it is the specter of the boy who shadows her, the adolescence that’s barreling down on her, threatening her girlhood with a beard and baritone. Constance’s apocalypse is a little more slippery and hard to pin down, but I think it’s the unwelcoming world her daughter was born into; fear for Stella’s physical and emotional well-being. The Ice Age, she can deal with; people are a trickier beast altogether.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: YES!!!!

After her brother Olaf raped and impregnated her, Dylan’s grandmother Gunn was ostracized by her family and forced to leave her home in the Orkney Islands. (This was in the early 1950s.) She came to London as a heavily pregnant teenager, opened the Babylon (a movie theater), and raised her daughter Vivienne (and later, Vivienne’s son Dylan) on her own. Vivienne knew of her mother’s secret, but couldn’t bear to tell Dylan while she was still alive; instead, she bought him a caravan at the Clachan Fells caravan park, right next to one of his cousins, and drew a family tree in her sketchbook for him to find.

Both Gunn and Vivienne passed away, just six months apart. Gunn took Devil’s snare, a fatal hallucinogen, and killed herself. Vivienne was suffering from an unnamed illness (cancer?) that she kept to herself until she was in the final stages. Dylan comes to Clachan Fells to mourn, and because he has nowhere else to go (deep in debt, the Babylon was repossessed), and because he wants to scatter his mother and grandmother’s ashes in the Orkneys just as soon as winter thaws and he can catch a ferry up to the archipelago.

One of his neighbors, twelve-year-old Stella Fairbairn, is a trans girl: “Cael Fairbairn has ceased to exist. Thirteen months ago the girl that wore his body got up and told everyone to quit calling her by the wrong pronoun.” While her mother Constance readily accepted this revelation, her father Alistair still calls her Cael and continues to buy her boy’s clothing. Stella and Alistair have been estranged since she came out (but Dylan becomes her friend and protector). Stella is frequently bullied by her classmates – including a physical assault by some boys who she used to call friends, before – and she’s also the target of thinly veiled microaggressions from the adults in town, including the nuns who run the only school in Clachan Fells. As adolescence comes barreling down on her, Stella tries to get hormone blockers from the only physician in town – only to be condescended to, and offered anti-depressants instead.

A single mother, Constance has juggled two lovers – Stella’s dad Alistair and Caleb, who’s frequently gone, traveling abroad – for the past two decades, leading to copious slut-shaming by kids and adults alike. Never mind that Alistair has been married and divorced multiple times, including while he was still sleeping with Constance. At least she isn’t cheating on anyone; Alistair and Caleb know about one another, and they can take it or leave it, as far as she’s concerned. Constance truly DGAF.

Dylan had a few sexual encounters with men when he was younger.

Barnacle, one of the other residents of the caravan park, commits suicide by sitting out in the snow.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Stella’s father Alistair is a taxidermist, and he frequently gives Constance gifts made of dead animals. The latest one is a wolf head and pelt, which she wears as a headdress and cape. (Given that the story takes place in the remote Scottish countryside on the cusp of the next Ice Age, wolves and other Arctic imagery are common throughout the book.) This sucks, but the silver(-ish) lining is that Constance is pretty sure the wolf was a sanctuary resident who died of natural causes.


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