The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

It’s how they get through the dark, by stashing up as much light as they can.

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No doubt about it, this is the loveliest cover I’ve had on a review book for some time.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is set during a raw and ravenous global winter, in late 2020 and early 2021. Those years are not far ahead of us now; I find it quite easy to think, “Oh, the future”, when I see that the third digit of a year is a 2, but really, Fagan is talking about five years from now. That’s nothing at all, even in human terms. Geologically, it’s  the present moment—right this second. And geological scales matter here: an iceberg is floating down from Norway to the Clachan Fells region of Scotland, where the three main characters of this book—Dylan MacRae, a refugee from London; Constance Fairbairn, a free spirit; and Stella, her twelve-year-old daughter—plan to wait out the winter in a caravan park.

Dylan’s mother and grandmother, the only family he’s ever known, have just died, leaving him a mountain of debt which their little art-house cinema must be sold to pay off—but, also, secretly purchased by his mother Vivienne, the caravan. He flees from London amid reports of worsening weather and the prediction of the worst winter in two hundred years. In November, it is already -6 degrees; by March, and the end of the book, it will reach -56. Fagan does a great line in description of the environment as it affects your physical state; here she is on the all-night bus that takes Dylan to Scotland:

The roads are sparser and the heater filters on and on and the air is too hot. Sleep announces itself as a heaviness—a fug he falls into—a density to it that makes it a struggle to rise back up, and the engine drones louder until noise becomes everything—night-lights shine down and distort the passengers’ features while traffic signs and roadworks fly past the window.

Stella and Constance, meanwhile, exist in a curious, banter-fueled relationship that mirrors the particular intensity of single parenthood but differs from it in a number of important ways. Stella’s father, Alistair, lives nearby (he’s on his third wife but has never been married to Constance, whose name is a kind of ironic reverse-symbol); Constance, for her own part, has made a practice of keeping two lovers at once, although the other one, Caleb, is supposedly “often away” and never turns up in this book. Stella remembers him with some fondness, but she doesn’t speak to Alistair. Less than a year ago, she was Cael. Alistair has not taken his child’s transition well.

Stella is really the heart of the book. Dylan, whose adulthood is tempered by a remarkably non-obnoxious arrested development, narrates a bit; Constance doesn’t narrate at all, and although she’s never completely twee-mystical, there are some distinct touches of magical realism about her. The whole book is woven through with little threads of the numinous, in fact. Dylan’s grandmother Gunn appears to Stella (who doesn’t know who she is) to dispense some advice. The freak winter itself is like the backdrop to a fairy tale: Narnia, or the country of the Snow Queen. The appearance of the aurora borealis is a moment of transcendent beauty as represented in the natural world.

And there is a great need for transcendent beauty in this harshness. It’s not just the winter that’s cold; a chill wind (as recent-birthday-boy Shakespeare reminded us) is not so unkind as man’s ingratitude to man. He was talking about children and parents, but Fagan’s cruelest humans are friends. Stella’s classmates, like Alistair, are not really adjusting to her transition. Her best friend from childhood, Lewis, is both attracted to her (he kissed her last summer) and terrified of standing out from the crowd (among other things, he contributes to a nasty drawing of her that does the rounds at a community hall emergency meeting.) Her doctor isn’t exactly malicious, but he utterly fails to understand why she’s so desperate to get her hands on hormone blockers before facial hair and a cracking voice start making their entrances. It’s perseverance, stubbornness, that Stella needs, more than anything, to get through her teenaged years.

Likewise, perseverance is the only thing that can get her patched-together family through the winter. The sunlight pilgrims of the title are semi-mythical monks, from stories of Gunn’s: men who, in the dark months of the year, used the sunlight they’d soaked up in warmer days and stored in their cells. They husbanded and harvested a resource they kept inside their bodies. Amidst greyness and gloom, they glowed. It may not be the subtlest of metaphors, but it’s awfully moving: the idea that you can make mental and emotional preparations for survival.

This may be why the book’s ending seems to me a bit of an anti-climax, in its pure uncertainty. It’s all about survival, the day-to-day business of it, and Fagan ends halfway through, leaving us on something of a cliffhanger. You can decide for yourself how to read the ambiguous final page, which I suppose is a good thing. I like to think that they all die, not because I hated the characters or thought they deserved it but because it seemed the most likely fate, and the aptest. After its admittedly unpleasant initial stages, hypothermia is a relatively calm way to die. And it doesn’t seem so bad, after all, to go at the same time as the people who are most important to you, swaddled in the sunlight of your memories, and your love.

Many thanks to Emma Finnigan at William Heinemann for the review copy. The Sunlight Pilgrims was released in the UK on 7 April.

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15 thoughts on “The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

  1. This sounds intriguing. I wonder, though, if I might like it more without the magical realism and mystical elements. I love survival stories (especially ones that take place in extreme temperatures) and all that comes out of the them; how people react to the hardship, etc. For one thing, it usually makes me so happy to be where I am.

    • There’s surprisingly little magical realism (a term I dislike deeply, anyway). It’s more just that things *feel* magical. The only truly unexplainable thing that happens is when Gunn talks to Stella for about two minutes and then disappears. It only happens once!

  2. I’ve read another review of this somewhere (have lost it, of course) that was similarly positive, and now I’m very much looking forward to it. Thank you!

    FWIW, my husband’s grandmother nearly died of hypothermia a few months ago, and it was pretty damned unpleasant, by all accounts.

    • I’m glad you’re going to go looking for it!

      Oh God, I’m sorry you guys went through that. Shall I change the review? I always thought at the end of hypothermia you felt kind of warm and snuggly and peaced out. Maybe not so much.

  3. ian darling says:

    I liked Fagan’s The Panopticon a lot and this seems an interesting direction for her to go. I hope she hasn’t been inspired by the yearly ritual of bizarre Daily Express headlines predicting apocalyptic winters!

  4. That is quite a stunning cover. This story sounds like a typical Minnesota winter! Just kidding. The coldest winter I can remember we only reached -40. Hasn’t been that cold here in a very long time though. With climate change, we rarely get colder than -29 and the last few years that’s been with the windchill. I’m intrigued by the sound of the story. Will have to keep an eye out for it, maybe read it next January to help me feel warmer 🙂

    • I have heard about Minnesota winters… a dear friend of mine went to Carleton College and says they regularly received warnings from the administrators not to go outside with wet hair, lest it should freeze and break off!

      • Carleton College is about 30-45 minutes south of the Twin Cities where I live. Nice area. And yup, valid warnings regarding wet hair in winter!

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