Book Review – The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Posted August 19, 2016 by Bonnie in Adult, Book Reviews, Read in 2016 / 4 Comments

I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review – The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni FaganThe Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
Published by Hogarth on July 19th 2016
Pages: 288
Genres: Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic, Magical Realism, LGBTQIA
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository

Also by this author: The Panopticon: A Novel


The stunning new novel from the highly-acclaimed author of The Panopticon

It's November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Each day colder than the last. There's snow in Israel, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south. But not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother's and grandmother's ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived.

Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything with restorative and trading value. When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they'll all be ready.

Written in incandescent, dazzling prose, The Sunlight Pilgrims is a visionary story of courage and resilience in the midst of nature's most violent hour; by turns an homage to the portentous beauty of our natural world, and to just how strong we can be, if the will and the hope is there, to survive its worst.

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‘The North Atlantic Drift is cooling and Dylan MacRae has just arrived in Clachan Fells caravan park and there are three suns in the sky.
That’s how it all begins.’

The North Atlantic Drift is a wind driven current of warm water that is responsible for the warmer climates in Europe. The ongoing thaw of the polar ice caps result in massive amounts of fresh water being released in the oceans, vastly changing its salinity. Changes in salinity have the potential to unsettle ocean currents and thus our weather. A decrease in salinity would cause the North Atlantic Drift to slacken, subsequently changing Europe’s climate slowly over time. We’re experiencing this subtle climate change now and have been for many years, but in The Sunlight Pilgrims, Fagan brings us to the year 2020 where the worst case scenario has finally become a reality. It’s November, before true winter has even arrived and the weather outside is -6°F. By the end of January temperatures will have dropped to -38° and a small village in Scotland is struggling to endure.

‘Dark is following them. It’s coming to cloak everything. Each day it will eat a little more light until they will wake up one morning to find the sun won’t rise again.’

The alarming Ice Age chronicled in these pages never quite becomes the focal point for this story. It’s the aura surrounding the true story. The dire circumstances help to establish the characters and showcases their most base natures, but at center stage is twelve year old Stella Fairbairn, who thirteen months ago used to be referred to as ‘he’.

‘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.’

Stella has finally found some form of peace after no longer having to show the world one person when the person she feels she is on the inside is completely different. She’s headstrong and determined to find her new place in the world amidst all the appalling bullying she’s forced to deal with from her classmates who she used to call friends. She resorts to finding people with similar stories on the internet to make her feel less alone and to find people that will accept her for how she is. Meanwhile, her and everyone else fights to stay alive in the rapidly changing climate. And at heart, that’s what this story is all about: surviving. Whether it’s surviving growing up in a society that refuses to accept you for who you are or whether it’s surviving in a harsh and unforgiving climate, it’s all the same.

Stella isn’t the only enticing character in the book; its chock-full of them. Constance, Stella’s free-spirited, survivalist mother, Dylan, the giant of a man who arrives in the village carrying the ashes of his mother and grandmother, and their neighbors which include a porn star, lesbian school teachers, some Satan worshipers, and a guy determined to prove the existence of aliens. While their descriptions alone would seem to guarantee a most quirky read, The Sunlight Pilgrims was a surprisingly subdued and almost peaceful read about the possible end of the world as we know it. Fagan has once again placed the spotlight on individuals that would typically be relegated to darkened corners. The Panopticon gave juvenile offenders the spotlight and now The Sunlight Pilgrims displays the marginalization of individuals undergoing a gender transition. Between the doctors that suggested anti-depressants to her instead of the hormone blockers she requested and the majority of the community that looks on her with nothing but disdain. All while this is happening, the Ice Age is still coming on slowly but surely. It all seems so insignificant that these individuals are still able to maintain their scorn and self-righteousness while there are more important things going on outside; like the world ending.

Fagan’s writing is almost restrained yet still remains vibrant and descriptively lush. She aptly describes icicles growing to the size of narwhal tusks, “…the long bony finger of winter herself.” While the world around them is being encased in ice, there is still a remarkable beauty to be found.

‘Sun spirals down through treetops showing up sediments of silver and amber dust. A frozen pond. Curls of ice make a frost flower on a fallen bough. Each iced petal is perfectly curled and see-through. Winter has been hand-carving them overnight. Placing them here.’

‘A flock of birds fly low overhead.
Mossy greens and purples and red-golds have faded to brown.
Sleet billows off the mountain.
Treetops disappear in one blink as the white owerblaw races over the mountaintop and drifts down thicker and faster, painting everything white until within seconds the whole landscape is utterly changed.’

While the mere concept of negative double digit temperatures is horrifying, Fagan manages to make it a poetic experience. There’s even a pinch of magical realism added to this most realistic world, when Dylan first sets eyes on Constance, “…she reaches up a pale arm up into the sky and polishes the moon.” It was a frivolous addition to the story, however, it added a touch of magic to the existing beauty and I loved it.

When I sat down to write this review tonight, I was distressed because I didn’t have any idea what to say about this story or if I’d even be able to successfully explain what made it so special. I spent over an hour researching salinity and the North Atlantic Drift so that I could understand just how something like what happened in this story could actually happen. My research took me right back to how this story made me feel: aghast yet somehow sanguine. Survival is always a possibility, no matter the circumstances.

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